Tests to determine whale deaths

Samples from four dead whales found on Papamoa Beach are being taken to Massey University today to determine the cause of death.

The four Gray's Beaked whales, two nursing females and two young juveniles, were found dead at the eastern end of Papamoa Beach on Saturday, January 20.


One of the dead Gray's Beaked whales found on Papamoa Beach. Photo: Department of Conservation's Chris Clark. 

Department of Conservation officials were called to beach by a member of the public just after 10am, by which time the whales were already dead.  

DOC spokesperson Katrina Knill says DOC immediately dispatched staff and equipment to the site and called Project Jonah volunteers and iwi representatives, as well as Maritime New Zealand Rena wildlife response team members to the beach.

DOC biodiversity programme manager Chris Clark, who attended the stranding, says all of DOC's standard processes were followed.

This included the collection of measurements, observations, and blood and tissue samples from the heart, lungs, liver, stomach and blubber of the four whales. 

These samples are on their way to Massey University today to be tested and are expected to reveal whether the whales had been exposed to toxins, or ingested any foreign materials.

DOC Tauranga area manager Andrew Baucke says DOC did consider removing the carcasses from the beach to undertake a full necropsy, but in consultation with marine specialists at the time, a decision was made not to do this.

“Due to the location and size of the whales and the logistics involved, it was decided that our standard sampling regime would suffice in this instance.

“We have had more whale strandings than usual on the Papamoa coastline this summer, and we are very aware of the increased toxins, debris and sonar activity in the area due to the Rena incident.”

“We will be working with our marine specialists and iwi to determine what sampling and testing regime is most appropriate in the event of any further strandings and how these can best be facilitated logistically.”

Concerns have been raised by members of Project Jonah and by Tauranga based eco-tourism operator Graeme Butler as to the impact of the sonar equipment, used to locate containers on the seabed, on whales in the Bay of Plenty.

Graeme says there is a resident population of Gray's Beaked whales off the Tauranga coast and the sonar used could be interfering with them.

“The last sonar search coincided with a spate of whale strandings, and now again after the break-up of the ship they started using the sonar to search for containers and this has happened.”

In October 2011 a juvenile Gray's Beaked died when it stranded on Papamoa Beach, with two other adult whales.

At this time a full necropsy and CT scan was undertaken of the whale and DOC reports no evidence showed the sonar was related to the death or stranding of the whales.

“The cause of that stranding remains unknown and the Department has received no evidence to indicate that the use of ship sonar in the region was a contributing factor.”

DOC has recorded between two and 12 strandings a year in the wider Bay of Plenty during the last ten years, with Pygmy Sperm and Gray's Beaked whales being the most common stranded species.

After all testing of the Gray's Beaked whales was completed on Saturday, Katrina says the whales were moved to the high tide mark about 2km east of the end of Papamoa Beach where a digger had prepared holes in the sand for the bodies.

The five metre long whales were then buried following a karakia at about 5pm on Saturday evening.

Katrina says at this stage it is unknown how long it will take to get the test results back.



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The moon peeping through the clouds at Pillans Point. Photo: Mike Berry.

Send us your photos from around the Bay of Plenty. kendra@thesun.co.nz