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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Whales and why they strand

Japanese "scientific whaling" is being conducted in New Zealand waters, or so the Dominion Post tells me, along with many other sources.  There are the usual protesters, who seem to have a remarkably efficient press department, so that we are informed from moment to moment.

Ironically (or so it seems to me) the page opposite this item in today's Dom has the headline "DOC [Department of Conservation] forced to euthanase pod after first big stranding of the year."

Thirty-nine whales -- pilot whales, at an educated guess -- have died following the usual suicidal rush into the shallow waters of Farewell Spit, in Golden Bay, in the north of the South Island of New Zealand. When the stranding was discovered, twelve were dead already, and after a good look at the conditions it was decided to euthanase the rest.

This is really depressing.  I feel for the DOC workers and the volunteers who help them, I really do. Refloating is a fine thing to try, but it is much more hazardous to human health than people realise -- whales harbor parasites in their skin that interact with human skin, causing horrible boils.  And of course there is the risk of being crushed.  And, after all that, there is too often the frustration of watching as the refloated whales promptly strand themselves again.  But euthanasing isn't easy, either.  Whales -- or so I was told by a scientist who hated the job -- are very, very hard to kill.  The method is violent, whether intended humanely or not.

Another coincidence is a story further on in the same paper, relating the Maori legend of why whales strand themselves so regularly on Farewell SpitAnd here is my retelling.

A long, long time ago, kuku (the mussel) and pipi had a big fight for supremacy of the sandy beach there, where the waters are shallow and warm and fertile.  It was such a noisy battle that it drew the attention of takaako (the shark) and te pu (a whale). They watched with great interest as pipi won, and as soon as pipi (which has a large and tasty tongue) had taken over the beach, they rushed in for a feast. The pipi quickly pulled their heads into the sand, and takaako and te pu finished up stranded with their mouths full of sand. And, as we all know, sharks can swim out of shallow water, but whales have been stranding themselves on Farewell Spit ever since.

And who gave Farewell Spit its name?  Captain Cook, of course.  It was his departure point when he left New Zealand in 1770, though he actually called it "Cape Farewell."  The first settlers called it "Cape Farewell Spit" and at some time it was shortened.

I've never come across "te pu" used for "whale" before, the usual words being "tohora", "paraoa," and "wera."  "Tepu" means "table," and one of the meanings of "te pu" is "wise person," which is yet anothe irony. And "takaako" is a new word, too.  The closest is "takakau," the mutton bird. Maybe the names the storyteller gave the shark and the whale are local to Farewell Spit.


Wendy said...

I'd rather get a boil or two to help a stranded whale than not to help at all.

Dale said...

Beats me why scientists or engineers could not work together to devise a blocking transmission from these known stranding sites that would feed back to the whales' sonar that this was an unsafe route.
Surely it's within our capabilities to dream something up?

Joan Druett said...

I believe whales are sonar-sensitive, and it might be underwater echoes that attract or confused them. Maybe the surf on the shallow beach? But it occurs to me that with a good set of underwater speakers and a few heavy metal CDs, the pods could easily be driven out of danger :)