Sperm whale stranded at Tai Long Wan, Sai Kung in 2003

Sperm Whales in Hong Kong, the Tai Long Wan Stranding and the Cruise of the “Cachalot” from 1899

On July 21st 2003 at about 9am, a sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) stranded alive on Tai Wan Beach in Sai Kung. The thought of any large whale in Hong Kong waters always surprises, but one as special and unique as a sperm whale is even more surprising.

Sperm whales are the largest toothed whales and get their unusual name from an oily waxy tissue in their head called “spermaceti”. They live in deep water and can dive deeper and longer than any other cetaceans – up to 2000m deep. They generally live offshore in water over a thousand metres deep where they feed on large squid and octopus. They tend to live in stable and long-term social groups, and they can live for up to 60-70 years.

Hong Kong waters are generally shallow and less than 40 m deep and not suitable for sperm whales. The sperm whale which stranded alive at Tai Long Wan Beach marked the first officially recorded sighting in Hong Kong. Previously the last recorded sighting in the wider Guangdong Coast was back in the 1950s.
With the help of Google and Project Gutenberg I have found much earlier record before 1899, though it is somewhat vague as to the exact location. In a book called ‘The Cruise Of The “CACHALOT”, Round The World After Sperm Whales’ by Frank T. Bullen, F.R.G.S., First Mate, published in 1899, the following mention occurs: “But, to the surprise of all, when we had arrived off the beautiful island of Hong Kong, to which we approached closely, we “raised” a grand sperm whale.”(Chapter 13). “Raised” here means caught and killed. It is not an official record, but I think the first mate of a whaling ship will have known how to recognize his primary target…

So sperm whales are no strangers to the offshore waters near Hong Kong and it shouldn’t surprise us too much that they may stray into shallow water. It is likely that the stranded animal at Tai Long Wan was sick, separated from its main pod, or drifted off course by the currents of two tropical depressions in the area at that time.

Chances of a rescue were slim from the outset as the whale probably already suffered from internal bleeding with its massive weight – no longer buoyed by water – exerting crushing pressure on the internal organs. Even if it had been successfully pulled out to sea again, it would not have been able to find food in the Hong Kong waters and would have been far from the deep water it normally lives in. A re-stranding would have been very likely. Sperm whales have hardly ever been rescued from beaches and released back to the ocean successfully.
The decision was made for a government veterinarian to euthanize the animal to prevent further unnecessary suffering.

A year after this stranding on the 24th January 2004, a sperm whale stranded on the coast of southern Taiwan, making headlines because the carcass famously exploded from the build up of decomposition gases while lying on a trailer on route through a small town (you can simply google: “exploding whale” for dozens of sites and archived news reports…). Five years later, on the 15th of January 2008 another sperm whale stranded on coast of Fujian (China Daily article with images) at a beach near Songxia Port in Changle. This was followed by a bigger stranding this year (2012) in Jiangsu Province where 4 sperm whales were stranded on March 16th. Let us all hope that this is not the start of a trend along the China coast.

All below images are courtesy of the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society (HKDCS). If you enjoyed this article and the images, please consider a small donation to the HKDCS to support their excellent work. Oh – and please rate my blog and leave a comment. Thanks!

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