Southern Right Whale to join Sperm Whale in SA Museum collection

On Tuesday morning, a Southern Right Whale was reported by a commercial fisherman to be seen ashore at Point Bolingbroke on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula. The whale was deceased; its body showing evidence of possible propeller strike and scavenging by sharks. Point Bolingbroke is roughly half way between Tumby Bay and Port Lincoln, south of three proposed port developments within Spencer Gulf at Lipson Cove, Lucky Bay and Port Bonython. The nature of this animal’s injuries makes this topical news following our recent discussions of the risk these proposed port developments and the subsequent increases in commercial shipping in Spencer Gulf pose to the recovery of the endangered Southern Right Whale. The Australian population, which migrates from the Southern Ocean to warmer near-shore waters to breed and calve is estimated to be around 3,500 individuals.

Dead Southern Right Whale ashore at Point Bolingbroke - Photo by Mick McCallum
Dead Southern Right Whale ashore at Point Bolingbroke 2013 – Photo by Mick McCallum

Needless to say, every Southern Right Whale’s life is precious. Scientists from the South Australian Museum will endeavor to determine the animal’s cause of death as best they can, and will be examining soft tissue, blubber and bones for clues. The propeller cuts on the carcass demonstrate that risk of ship strike to Southern Right Whales is real– even without the estimated trebling of shipping traffic forecast to occur if port proposals are approved and proceed. We at Cuttlefish Country are advocating for due consideration of impact to whales, which in our opinion should include studies of whale behavior and movements within Spencer Gulf, regulation of commercial shipping to 10 knot speed limits during whale migration season, and the presence of Marine Mammal Observers on vessels as they make their passage through Spencer Gulf. We also have some alternative export recommendations, which include the utilization of the existing railway to Darwin, which would not only eliminate the potential for impacts to whales and other marine life in temperate waters, but also shorten the distance between mines and their Asian customers by at least 2000 kilometres. After receiving news of the beach-wrecked whale, the South Australian Museum’s staff investigated the practicality of collecting the specimen. Now, the 10 metre long juvenile male, estimated to weigh between 10 and 15 tonnes, is expected to take a week to dissect and prepare for transport to Adelaide. The team of experts is supported by local community volunteers.

Spencer Gulf ports, proposed ports & 2013 dead whale location
Spencer Gulf ports, proposed ports & 2013 dead whale location

Remarkably, this is not the first large whale to be collected from Point Bolingbroke. Anyone who has ever visited the South Australian Museum should immediately recognize the iconic Sperm Whale skeleton exhibit below, which has pride of place in the museum’s North Terrace window. This specimen was also collected from Point Bolingbroke, an account of which was published in The South Australian Advertiser on December 9, 1881.

Sperm Whale skeleton at the SA Museum -  collected from Point Bolingbroke, 1881
Sperm Whale skeleton at the SA Museum – collected from Point Bolingbroke, 1881

The article below comes from the National Library of Australia’s website, an invaluable database of digitized print media from around the nation. A series of follow-up articles also goes on to trace the whale bones’ transport by sea to Port Adelaide, and the preparation for their display in a purpose built shed prior to taking centre stage in the museum’s main window.

“The presence of sperm whale off the coast is not an event of so rare occurrence as to create much interest, and the bones which lie bleaching on Sleaford rocks testify to a time not far distant when the fisheries along the west shoreline will be a profitable speculation, and the fish in far greater numbers than they have been in later years. Perhaps the increase in ocean traffic has much to do with this. All fish like solitude,and the activity and noise of commerce quickly scare them from their wonted haunts. The whalers, finding their quarry more abundant elsewhere, abandoned their stations near Cape Catastrophe, and sought more southern latitudes, and although even now a stray leviathan occasionally selects the quiet waters of Port Lincoln for a cruising ground, his stay is but short, and the interval between such visits is getting longer and longer.”

“A large whale reported ashore was a different matter, but even here a wondrous lack of energy or want of appreciation of a slice of undeniable good luck seemed to have inspired the original finders of the animal, which was first observed stranded in Louth Bay. On the arrival of the boatmen in Port Lincoln the circumstance was casually mentioned, but nothing done to secure the carcase until sufficient time had elapsed for the body to float away on an extra high tide; thus their chance was lost, and the whole matter well-nigh forgotten. About a fortnight since, the Albatross with her owner, Mr. William Haig, on board, accompanied by Messrs. Thompson and Bastard, of Kapunda, and a few friends was out on a pleasure cruise among the picturesque islands which form the Sir Joseph Banks Group, when the whale was sighted lying high up on the beach inside one of the many reefs which bristle round Point Bolingbroke, and among which the cutter now cautiously threaded her way.”

“A landing was effected and possession taken, with all due formalities, of the prize, the party returning to Port Lincoln for hands and appliances to commence the trying down process without delay. A prize truly it turned out to be. Although from time and rough usage some of the oil had escaped, and was even then smoothing the sea-ripple some two miles to seaward, there was evidently in the vast body abundance to make it a profitable speculation, and moored as it was by the sharp cruel rocks which gird the point, there was little fear that it would again play truant.”

“The specimen is a female, full grown, extreme length from snout to tail 61 feet 6 inches. Head, from blow-hole to eye, about one third the length, and the height to the hump about 16 feet perpendicular. The flukes are 10 feet from point to point, being 6 feet and 8 feet 6 inches respectively. The few measurements given must be considered as approximate, and as the whale is resting on the right side, and somewhat flattened from loss and exposure, they may be taken to be rather under than over the size when alive. Work under the three before mentioned gentlemen is rapidly progressing, and the oil and spermaceto proves to be abundant in quantity and excellent in quality, the head which is pointing seaward being the present special object of attack. On the shore are the boiling-down apparatus, and a goodly supply of ladders, cache, &c., connected with the monster by a roadway which had to be formed through the rocks to effect the transit of the blubber and junk to be operated on.”

It is not known at this time if the recent Southern Right Whale will ultimately join the Sperm Whale’s skeleton on public display.

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Dan Monceaux is a South Australian documentary filmmaker and the director of Cuttlefish Country.

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