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First record of a Dwarf sperm whale in UK waters

12/10/2011 23:43:16

First dwarf sperm whale ever confirmed in UK waters. Photo credit - Hannah Jones of Marine. Discovery of Penzance.

Dwarf sperm whale off Cornwall

October 2011. Dr Peter Evans, Director of the marine research charity Sea Watch, has confirmed that a small whale spotted in Mounts Bay next to the Cornish town of Penzance was a dwarf sperm whale - a tropical/subtropical species that has never before been recorded off the UK coast.

The animal, little more than the size of a porpoise, swam into Mounts Bay on Sunday October 9. As it came close to shore, a local person spotted it on the beach and reported it to the local coastguard and to the Cornwall Wildlife Trust strandings officer, Jan Loveridge. A member of the public then managed to re-float the animal which subsequently swam away.

Local members of British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) and a local tourist boat operator, Marine Discovery, then observed the whale for some time before it disappeared from view. Initially they thought from its size
that it was a harbour porpoise.

On Tuesday October 11, Dr Peter Evans received a phone call from manager of Shetland Wildlife, Hugh Harrop having just received photos from a friend, Glenn Overington, who on his return from a birding holiday in Cornwall had stated that he had seen what he believed to be a Dwarf Sperm Whale in Mounts Bay. 

About dwarf sperm whales

Length: adults 2.1-2.7m

Markings: Dwarf sperm whales are grey in colour
with a white ventral side, sometimes with pink or
purple blotches; a relatively large triangular or
slightly falcate dorsal fin, and a squarish or
triangular head profile and a narrow, underslung
lower jaw. The head shape and light-coloured
false gill slit down the side of the head behind
the eye gives the animal a somewhat shark-like
appearance. It has small flippers with somewhat
blunt tips, positioned near the head. The
blowhole is situated well forward , generally less
than 10% of the way from the snout tip (in
pygmy sperm whale it is
slightly further back).

Other features: large curved sharp teeth in the
lower jaw. Small non-functional teeth may be
present in the upper jaw

Food: thought to feed near the ocean bottom
on deep sea cephalopods, fish, and crustaceans

European Records: There have been six
previous records: France (1986, 1991,
& 1999), Spain (1987), and Italy (1988 & 2002).

Additional pictures by Hannah Jones (and video by Kimara McCrindle) of Marine Discovery, a Sea Watch recommended tourist boat operator from Penzance, were also passed to Dr Evans for analysis. Their pictures revealed the distinctive body and head shape of a Kogia whale. There are two members of this family: The pygmy sperm whale and the dwarf sperm whale.

Dr Evans said: "Analysis of the images as well as photos and video were sufficient to confirm species identity - dwarf sperm whale, a first for Britain.

"It is one of the increasing number of records of warm water species that are turning up around the British Isles in recent years."

29th Cetacean species in UK waters
The confirmation means that 29 species of cetaceans have now been recorded in UK and Irish waters.

So little is known about the dwarf sperm whale, Kogia sima, that it is listed as 'data deficient' on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. However, some scientists suggest their scarcity may have been due to extensive hunting in the past.

Dr Evans explains: "Pygmy and dwarf sperm whales are very difficult to tell apart, but the dwarf sperm whale has a much larger dorsal fin, which can be very variable in shape whereas the pygmy sperm whale always has a small falcate fin.

"The pygmy sperm whale tends to wander further north and has been recorded several times in British waters. One, thought to be a sub-adult pygmy sperm whale, was found stranded in Scotland at Easdale, Seil, on 6 October and the Scottish Agricultural College in Inverness has collected samples for DNA analysis.

"Pictures of the Penzance whale show it to be dwarf sperm whale, its fin being large and almost triangular. This species has been recorded on only a handful of occasions in Europe (including Spain and France), and never in Britain or Ireland. It is just one of the increasing number of records of warm water species to be turning up around the British Isles in recent years.

" Unfortunately those who saw it said it was bleeding and it may have been injured, possibly on rocks, and I am not hopeful for its long term survival."

If you see this, or any other cetacean, stranded along the coastline of Cornwall, please call the CWT Strandings Network on 0845 201 2626.

Anyone who sees the animal swimming should contact Dr Evans or call 01545 561227.

Courtesy of Sea Watch: Sea Watch is the holder of the largest database of whales and dolphins in Europe.

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