Rarely seen whale strands in Devon.

At 8am on the morning on Monday 12th September, British Divers Marine Life Rescue received a call to their hotline reporting a live whale in the process of stranding at Babbacombe beach, Torquay, Devon. Trained volunteer Marine Mammal Medics with specialist rescue equipment were immediately dispatched to the site to assess the situation.

The first local Medics arrived within a short space of time and were able to identify the animal as a Sowerby’s beaked whale. This is a deep-diving specialist species that normally lives far offshore beyond the continental shelf, such as the Bay of Biscay, and do not usually come anywhere close to the coast in this part of the world. Experience with many similar strandings over the previous decades has shown that these animals are often already in a seriously compromised state of health, and sadly this incident was no different.

The whale was still afloat amongst the rocks and struggling at this point, so the team had to observe for their own safety before they could get hands on. From their visual assessment it was obvious that the animal was painfully thin, with visible vertebra showing, and its beak was also broken. BDMLR Area Coordinator Chris Berry, supported by the team, Coastguard and Police, was able to approach safely to gather important information such as length estimate, breathing rate, photos and video footage that were sent back to our specialist veterinary consultant to confirm a course of action as per our protocol.

At this point the whale passed away naturally, before arrangements could be made to relieve the animal from its suffering via a veterinarian. Further assessment by the team confirmed it to be a female and also discovered a fishing hook embedded in her tongue. The body was secured for a post mortem examination, which was conducted by James Barnett and the Cornwall Marine Pathology Team, under the aegis of the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme.

Initial examination of the whale confirmed that it was a 4.2m juvenile female (national reference SW2022/557). There was evidence of aberrant feeding with seaweed present in the first of the whale’s two stomachs – no evidence of recent successful feeding was noted. The whale had suffered a significant amount of recent trauma to the head, with fractures of the rostrum and haemorrhages over the back of the skull, potentially as the animal foundered in shallow water. Although the hook was no longer present at the time of the examination, a nick where it was likely to have been situated was present in the tongue – in addition, fresh wounds in the dorsal fin suggested potentially recent non-fatal entanglement in, for example, fishing line. Further tests are pending and may shed more light on underlying reasons for the animal’s poor condition and aberrant feeding.

This is the second Sowerby’s beaked whale to be reported stranded in England and Wales this year and only the sixth to be reported in south west England since the inception of CSIP in 1990.

The three organisations would like to thank their volunteer teams involved with this incident, as well as Peake GB Ltd, Torbay Coastguard Rescue Team, Devon and Cornwall Police, Torquay Harbour Office and Brixham Harbourmaster for safety cover and retrieval.