Stranded sperm whale dies in Humber estuary

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The Independent Online

The drama will reignite controversy and speculation about the fate of whales in the North Sea, following the death of a northern bottlenose whale after it swam up the river Thames two weeks ago, capturing the imagination of the nation.

Experts believe that the whales - both deep-water species, which should not have been in the shallow North Sea - are likely to have strayed there after making navigational errors. Some believe that these could have been caused by naval sonar confusing their senses. Yesterday, even before the stranding, conservationists were warning about a new threat from Nato exercises later this month.

The 14ft whale was first spotted, beached and struggling to free itself, on Kilnsea Clay sandbank to the west of Spurn Head at about 10.30am. A crowd gathered at the local Crown and Anchor pub to watch its ever more desperate efforts as the ebbing tide left it more and more firmly stuck.

Jan Crowther, from Kilnsea, said while the creature was still alive: "It is such a sad thing to watch, because the whale looks so distressed. It seems to be working very hard and struggling to get free."

Two lifeboats set out to save it, but could not get close enough as the tide receded, so a four-man team of rescuers from British Divers and Marine Life Rescue - which led the attempt to save the London whale - decided to wade out to it, reaching the animal at about 3pm, close to low tide, after it had been left high and dry.

Covered in mud from head to foot on his return, Simon Drayton, one of the rescuers, told The Independent on Sunday: "We waded for an hour all the way out to the whale. But by the time we had got there, it had rolled over on its side, its blowhole had become buried in two feet of mud, and it had suffocated."

Richard Sabin, a whale expert at the Zoological Society of London, said that there were about one or two strandings of sperm whales around England's coasts every other year, but they were rare in the North Sea which was "a hostile environment for them".

Research suggests that from time to time, sperm whales travelling south from far North Atlantic waters make navigation errors and pass east of the Shetlands, rather than to the west, ending up in the North Sea.

Once there, according to the theory, they try to continue their instinctive south-westward journey, which would normally take them through deep waters west of Ireland - and strand in estuaries that appear to offer them a route there, such as the Humber and the Thames. A similar theory was advanced to explain the death of the London whale.

But some conservationists believe that the mistake may have been caused by disturbance from naval sonar, which has been linked to some 30 strandings around the world.

Yesterday, the Seawatch Foundation and the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust issued a warning about exercises off Scotland, starting on 27 February, in which the Royal Navy will for the first time use both its ships equipped with low-frequency sonar systems. Such technology has been linked to whale and dolphin deaths elsewhere in the world.

WHALE FACTS

* Males can grow to between 17 and 20 metres and weigh 36-45 tons, living off squid and fish.

* The creature has the largest brain of any animal, weighing up to 9kg. A human brain weighs about 1.4kg.

* The name comes from a waxy substance in its head, the valuable spermaceti oil, thought by early whalers to be sperm.

* Although hunted heavily for meat and oil, between200,000 and two million are thought to be in existence.

* Herman Melville's Moby-Dick was a sperm whale.

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