Whale enigma of the deep
By PHILIP ENGLISH
So little is known about the type of whale stranded on Waiheke Island on
Sunday that scientists cannot even say for sure whether it is rare or not.
A 4m female gray's beaked whale stranded and died at West Onetangi Beach and
was towed away yesterday to be buried by Department of Conservation staff.
Other than bleeding from the stranding, and round nips on its body from
cookie cutter sharks, the whale was in good condition, leading DoC staff to
wonder whether it had died after eating plastic.
Whales can mistake plastic bags for squid, which the beaked whales are known
to feed on.
"They can suck in a plastic bag and think it's a squid and that's the end of
that," said Simon Mowbray, a DoC biodiversity programme manager.
However, the whale did not appear to be starving, usually the case when
whales eat plastic bags and cannot feed properly, so the cause of death will
probably never be known.
An autopsy will be carried out. It may not determine the cause of death but
will reveal if the whale was pregnant.
A marine mammal biologist, Dr Rochelle Constantine, of the University of
Auckland, said about 15 of 21 species of Southern Hemisphere beaked whales
were found in New Zealand waters.
But so little was known about them that it was hard to say if they were
"Until we know more about these whales we can only assume there aren't many
of them," Dr Constantine said.
She described them as dwelling in deep water and living individually or in
"Given the number of people about in boats around coastal New Zealand all
time, there are not many people who can say they have seen a beaked whale.
"That includes those of us who work out on the water spending a lot of time
looking at marine mammals.
"They really are an unknown quantity. We assume we would see more if they
were common and if they were in abundance."
Yesterday a research team collected genetic samples from the whale for a