Enormous beached sperm whale rescued in China. Will it survive?

A huge sperm whale stranded in the shallows near Ningbo, China, was towed back to sea last week after a strenuous 20-hour rescue. The whale’s ultimate fate, however, will probably never be known. Strandings are difficult on sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus), and animals don’t always survive even if they are rescued, said Bruce Mate, professor emeritus in fisheries, wildlife, and conservation and the past director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center.

“Good on them for making a noble effort in trying to get this animal back to sea, but the odds are quite difficult,” Mate told Live Science.

As the tide went out, the 62-foot-long (19 meters) whale was left lying on its side on a mudflat, in danger of suffocating under its own weight or dying of dehydration. Heat is among the greatest dangers to a stranded sperm whale, Mate said. These whales are deep-sea hunters that routinely hunt for prey in the frigid waters more than a mile (1.6 kilometers) below the ocean surface. The air temperature in Ningbo peaked at about 66 degrees Fahrenheit (19 degrees Celsius) on April 19. Even though that isn’t hot for a human, temperature regulation is different for sperm whales.

Finally, at 10 p.m. local time, the water rose enough for a tugboat to pull the whale deeper into the ocean, according to Metro U.K. At 5:30 a.m. local time on April 20, authorities were able to cut the ropes towing the whale, and the animal began swimming independently.

Stranding survival

Given its size, the whale was probably an adult male, Mate said. That was likely a blessing: Sperm whale females and juveniles live in pods. When a female, calf or young male in a pod strands, the rest of the pod may follow it, drawn by the stranded whale’s distress cries. The result, Mate said, is often mass death. In the early 1970s, he responded to a stranding of 43 sperm whales along the Oregon coast. Not a single animal survived. Adult males, in contrast, live alone. That means the adult male in Ningbo also stranded alone, limiting the damage to the population as a whole.


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