A final cry for help

Author // James Robbins Categories // Whale & Dolphin General News

A final cry for help
Fin whale (Photo credit: Dave Chilcott)

Rescue attempts fail to save injured whale in Southern France

The distressed whale swam into shallow waters close to the port of Saint–Cyprien, Southern France exhausted and bleeding. Rescue teams surrounded the ocean giant to assess its condition and help if appropriate, but unfortunately the whale was beyond help.

Hundreds of local onlookers hurried to the scene and looked on as the sea turned red from a bleeding wound around the whale’s blowhole and the whale sadly died.  The whale is thought to be a fin whale, the largest species after the blue whale. Fin whales can grow to lengths of 26m and have a global distribution. They are pelagic species and spend the majority of time in deep waters but are known to go into shallower waters, as low as 30m in depth. 

The body of the whale is now blocking the entrance to the Saint–Cyprien harbour so an operation is being put in place to remove it. Samples will be taken and analysed by biologists in an attempt to determine the cause of death. It could have been natural, but the signs of trauma suggest that the whale may have collided with something. Weakened or ill animals may come into the shallows to rest or avoid higher water movement, and as a result could scrape along rocks or man-made objects. Alternatively, it is possible that it was hit by a moving vessel.

Ship strike is one of the main threats to large whales in the North Atlantic and sadly this could be a contributing factor to the death of this whale. Research is being conducted by various groups to identify what can be done to prevent ship strikes in the future. Since 2017 ORCA have led an innovative study to investigate the frequency of ship strokes and near misses with fin whales in the Bay of Biscay.

The western edge of the Bay of Biscay is one of the busiest shipping routes in the world with container vessels, tankers and bulk carriers all moving goods from northern Europe. This coupled with high densities of large whales increases the risk of whale strike in this area. No one knows how many whales are killed by ships each year in the Bay of Biscay and many large ships are unaware they have hit a whale unless they discover it draped over their bulbous bow when they arrive in port. The bay is a very deep and large expanse of water and very few carcases are washed up so we are reliant on ships reporting a strike or near miss.

In 2018 ORCA continued to build upon successful research from 2017 and using high quality video recording equipment, a new methodology was trialed to hopefully gain insights into how fin whales react when faced with large ships in the Bay of Biscay. A member of the ORCA team was on board Brittany Ferries Pont-Aven to capture footage of the behavior of fin whales when encountering the ship as it crossed the Bay of Biscay. We are hopeful that the research will allow us to observe animal distribution and behaviours to inform policy to mitigate this threat in the future.

Read more about ship strike and the other threats that whales, dolphins and porposie are facing in European waters in our 2018 The State of European Cetacteans.