Monday, December 11, 2006

Sperm whale comes ashore.

A 40 foot sperm whale has died on the beach at Roseisle near Burghead in Morayshire in Scotland's North East. This is near where I spent my childhood and where both Cailean and my brother now live. Sperm whales are deep diving whales and prefer the deeper waters off the West coast of Scotland. The waters of the North Sea are relatively shallow and the whales are rarely seen in these waters. However, the RAF recently spotted a pod of nine whales (possibly sperms) not from where this sad corpse was found. Sperm whales are toothed whales and dive to depths of 300 metres to catch their favoured food, giant squid. Their record dives have been as deep as 3,000 metres.

In Easter 2006 a 65.5 foot fin whale was trapped on the rocks at Barlocco reef on the Solway, (photo above). It came ashore at a high spring tide and was trapped on the razor sharp fangs of rock that characterise that part of the Solway Firth. Apparently it was 65.5 feet exactly as below the 65 foot size it would have been the responsibility of the local authority to dispose of. As it was found to be over 65 foot, it was the responsibility of the Scottish Executive. Fin whales are baleen whales and filter small organisms through great plates that hang down from their upper jaws. Its tongue was bigger than a Volvo estate car. It was humbling to paddle so close to this leviathan of the deep.

Recent research has discovered that sperm whales, fin whales, killer whales and humpback whales have spindle cells in the anterior cingulate cortex and the frontoinsular cortex spindle cells. Previously these cells had only been found in the brains of primates. In humans, these parts of the brain control emotional functions such as love, hurt, social organisation, empathy, speech, intuition and rapid "first impression" reactions.

We do not know if these cells have a similar function in whales but they have been evolving them for 30 million years, which long predates humans' appearance on the planet. I think it would be presumptuous of our species to assume that they do not have a similar function.

Scotland used to be one of the most active whaling nations on earth. After we killed our own whales our whaling ships then scoured the seas of Antarctica for more prey. These whalers were brave men. My mother's great uncle was a west coast whaler who lost his life at sea. Today I am proud to live in a nation that has now chosen not to hunt these magnificent creatures.


  1. Douglas thanks for putting your sea kayaking website together. I was searching for a past-time/sport I could undertake to teach my children and the beauty of your photographs captivated me. As a result I have joined the local canoe/kayak club and, although it is early days, I hope to progress to sea-kayaking so that I can share similar trips to the ones you undertake with my children.

  2. Thank you very much Tom, I wish you as much joy as I have had from sea kayaking. Both my wife and daughter come sea kayaking, though my wife only likes summer!

  3. I remember visiting a beached whale in Hudson's Bay once by canoe and had a similar impression of its size and power. The smell was interesting as well! A sad sight, but I suppose part of the natural world.

  4. Interesting information, especially above the love cells as I am now going to call them. How are the Scottish Executive going to 'clean up' the whale?

    Did you see the infamous video on youtube of the whale being dinamited?

  5. Hi Kieran the SE brought in abatoir workers who cut it into pieces then removed it. The teeth and jaw bone had been removed by trophy hunters. I have seen the whale explosion. They said they did not want to do this because there was a picnic site nearby. I am surprised this was a factor. the weather we are having just now is in no way conducive to having a picnic.

    Michael, if it is a natural death it is not sad at all, however some people are concerned that the various submarine exercises by several nations on the west coast of Scotland may be disorientating whales and causing them to take a wrong turn into the North Sea. These exercises involve transmissions of low pitched sound which is also used by whales.