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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Even whale experts ask, 'What's going on?'

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau

KIHEI, Maui — An adult male pygmy sperm whale washed ashore here on Sunday, a day after a mother and calf of the same species beached themselves in the same area.

Pygmy sperm whales

According to the American Cetacean Society Web site, the pygmy sperm whales and their close relatives the dwarf sperm whales have similarities to the great sperm whales after which they are named, but they are classified into a different family.

Like sperm whales, the pygmy sperm has teeth in the lower jaw only (the dwarf sperm whale has up to three pairs of teeth in the upper jaw as well).

Here are some facts about them:

Length and weight: Length averages 10 feet for both sexes. Maximum length of adults is 14 feet; maximum weight is 900 pounds.

Color: Its body is blue-gray to black above, shading to light gray on the sides and soft white to pink on the belly.

Feeding: Mostly eats octopus and squid, but also crab, fish and shrimp.

Breeding: Some evidence exists that they are able to reproduce each year. Calves are about 4 feet at birth and weigh about 120 pounds. Most calving seems to take place between spring and autumn. The gestation period is about 11 months.

Territory: May be found in all temperate, sub-tropical, and tropical waters. Not known to migrate.

Status: Worldwide population figures are unknown, but they are not considered endangered.

Source: www.acsonline.org/factpack/

"It is very unusual," marine biologist Hannah Bernard said yesterday. "This is a rare and mysterious species, and it makes you wonder what's going on."

The male, estimated to be 10 or 11 feet long, was found dead Sunday afternoon near the Kealia Beach boardwalk on Ma'alaea Bay.

The creature's tail was chewed off by sharks, but that may not have been the cause of death because the whale appeared to have been dead for at least a day, said David Mattila, whale rescue specialist with the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

An average of five marine mammal strandings are reported annually in Hawai'i, versus several thousand annually in California.

On Saturday, a 10-foot female pygmy sperm whale stranded on nearby Kealia Beach in North Kihei, along with its calf. The animals were taken to the nearby Ko'ie'ie Fishpond, but the 4-foot newborn ended up bolting and wasn't seen again. The calf did not reappear and is presumed dead, Mattila said.

Scientists euthanized the female that night. Mattila said there were no outward signs of distress. The female did not look sick, and there were no signs of collision or entanglement, he said.

As for the male, it could have been the same animal from a beach rescue that was broadcast over police radio while volunteers were attending to the female and the calf, Mattila said.

"We're not sure," he said.

Mattila said it's possible the three whales were related and members of the same pod. One could have gotten sick and the others followed it to shore, he said, but that's speculation.

A DNA sample taken from the male could help determine if he's related to the female and calf.

The results of the necropsy conducted on both whales will not be known for months.

Although the pygmy sperm whale is not an endangered species — they are found in tropical and subtropical waters across the globe — the weekend's events were rare.

The pygmy sperm whale is a deep-water mammal that generally avoids shallow water, and hardly anything is known about the species.

"It's a great mystery," said Bernard, who joined Saturday's rescue efforts late.

"There's a real need to see the results of the necropsy," she said. "It's a tragedy. Your heart breaks not knowing how to help."

A pod of some 200 deepwater melon-headed whales appeared in Hanalei Bay shallows off Kaua'i in July. Marine mammal experts at the scene said the whales were behaving strangely and ultimately left a dead infant behind as they were coaxed out of the bay by beachgoers on canoes and kayaks.

Reach Timothy Hurley at (808) 244-4880 or thurley@honoluluadvertiser.com.