Sperm Whale Rescue - A Sad Ending of A Good Cause

This morning we received a shocking news from fishermen at Muara Gembong area of Bekasi shoreline, West Java, Indonesia. They saw a whale body floating without movement near the beach! Could that be our rescued spermwhale? Oh, no! :(

Sperm Whale Rescue - A Sad Ending of A Good Cause

A team of volunteers then went to the said location and found the body washed up ashore. Yes! It's our spermwhale! And she's dead! All of us whom has been involved in the rescue effort earlier were shocked and feel really sad, although we have expected that it could happen. We have learned from literatures that in cases of stranded whales, the chance of survival will be slim, and this happened to our whale.

The body of our spermwhale now has been towed to an island at the Thousand Islands area of Jakarta Bay where she will be resting for good. This decision was taken after considering many factors with the government agency handling the mammals issues, and permit was granted to let the body decompose naturally in the sea. We hope to have the bones preserved underwater, at a place where we could dive to remember the whale and our rescue efforts. This spermwhale rescue effort is the first ever documented and recorded whale saving action done in Indonesia. We named our whale as "Whalli" for "Whale Indonesia".

To wrap up this story I will describe the chronology of the rescue here...

The Alarm

On Thursday morning (26 July), our friends at the Jakarta Animal Aid Network (JAAN - www.jakartaanimalaid.com) received a call from people at the Tanjung Pakis village, Karawang, West Java, Indonesia, about a stranded whaleshark at their village. Yes, the initial info said that the stranded was a whaleshark.

That same day activist and volunteers from JAAN went to the location and found out that the animal was still breathing and it was not a whaleshark, but a whale (later confirmed as a sperm whale / Physeter macrocephalus).

When our JAAN friends arrived at the location, the people of Tanjung Pakis had initiatively tried to rescue the whale by trying to pull it back to the sea using six wooden fishing boats without luck. The effort was done by tying the tail with ropes, which also caused a deep wound to the whale's tail.

The volunteers then initiate a rescue effort by calling other volunteers, including divers to assist in the rescue. The whale was stranded at the beach, in water around 1.5 metres depth at low tide and 2 metres during high tide.  At that moment, the rescue team still have no clue of what to do and not properly geared up for the rescue. They however, treated the whale's wounded tail and continuously treating its back with vaseline to maintain moisture (the back was on top of water and directly exposed to sunlight).

Afterward, joining JAAN were divers, SAR team, the police and few others. JAAN co-ordinated the rescue effort as Rescue Mission Co-Ordinator, and the operations manager was appointed Mr. John E. Sidjabat, a member of diver community.

Challenges Ahead

The action faced a hard challenge from the villagers. The fishermen at the Tanjung Pakis village were against the rescue effort. Yes, the villagers were reluctant to co-operate as they saw that the stranded whale will provide a huge economic value for them to feed the family. A hard arguments between us and the villagers was then mediated by the village chief. We requested an escort for the whale from the local police station to ensure our safety. There were provocations and physical threats from some villagers towards us, the rescuer. However, after a hard time giving explanation finally the villagers understood about the mission and let us work although they were still not fully supportive. (As a note, fishing boat owners earned around Rp1 million a day from chartering their boats to see the stranded whale).

Besides of the villagers, another challenge was the busy local tourists to the area to see the poor whale. The villagers operated their fishing boats as tourist buses to visit the stranded whale. Their boat were manouvering very closely to the whale and their visit were actually creating heavy stress to it.

We were also lack of knowledge, experience and tools to do the job. We search the internet on procedures and ways to aid stranded cetaceans and tried to implement the best we could.

The Rescue

Several efforts to re-float the whale were taken. Our infant sperm whale was heavy at an approximate weight of more than 2 tons, and stranded at a shallow part of the beach with distance to deeper water of approximately 1.2km. We have called the coast guard, harbor authority and the army to provide powerful boats and tools to assist the rescue. The coast guard provide their cutters, a tug boat from the harbor authority, and two groups of elite force divers joined the team on the third day of rescue effort. The coast guard vessels were the only big vessel with sufficient power that could reach the farthest point inward, and yet still around 750 metres from our whale.

On Friday, the team managed to turn the whale from its original position, which was facing the beach. After repositioned (with a huge effort using canvas blanket pulled by 6 fishing boats), the body was then turned facing north to the open sea.

The whale has been stranded since Wednesday night and we knew she must be very hungry. But since this whale has teeth, we did not have any clue on how to feed her. It's too dangerous for us to feed her by hand and we also were not sure if she would take it. She's so weak and the team continuously monitored her signs of life.

Following procedures and best practice documents we found on the internet, the team then made a decision that by Saturday (28 July) we should try to tow her to deeper water, no matter what. Chance of survival has been very slim as this beautiful mammal was getting weaker. If she should die, let her die in deep water to avoid threats of contamination to the village.

We started working at 7am on Saturday morning. The participation of army elite force (Kopasus) really did a great help as the troops carried a lot of ropes and wide straps that could be used for towing the spermwhale to deeper water. The plan was to place two sets of large straps around the whale's body as towing points, then tied a tow rope between the coast guard vessel and her. As there are guidelines and best practice of how to handle stranded whales, we did our best to complete the job without hurting the whale. The effort to place the tow straps took around 4 hours. After the tow points were in place, we firstly tried to pull this giant using powered inflatables and sea rider RIB. Three powered inflatables and a sea rider RIB revved their engines for almost an hour, and yet the whale was only moving about 5 metres. At that moment, I was in a team that was handling ropes between the coast guard vessel and the whale. It was a heavy effort as the current and wave were not so friendly.

At around noon, the team finally managed to connect the tow rope from the whale to the coast guard vessel (distance was around 500 metres). I was in the water, assisting to tie the last part of the rope to the tow straps already on the whale's body. The water was choppy and shore current was at its peak. The team were really hoping that the strategy would work. After all the knots were done, the coast guard vessel KPLP-348 carefully started to manouver. We were all waiting in tense, to see if the whale could be moved this time, and finally she did! Hoorraaaaay!

All the team shouted in joy as the whale finally able to be moved and towed to the sea. We followed our whale using inflatables. Many fishing boats also joined the convoy to the sea with spectators on board. We constantly monitor her conditions while being towed. A mile out, the water was still shallow at around 6 metres. At around 2 miles from beach, the towing duty was handed over to the harbour authority tug boat which will continue towing this heavy giant farther out. We reached deeper point at around 5.8 miles from the beach, with depth of 20 metres. We stopped at that point and untie the straps. The last strap were cut-off and the whale was free. Everyone waited and prayed. After about 15 minutes we then saw her started moving, trying to manouver her body. And then we saw her facing north again to the open sea, and swum away! Yippeeeee! We have successfully re-floated the whale! Everybody were seen with tears of happiness and joy. What an experience! A 4-day ordeal to save a whale!

It was around 2.15pm that day the last time we saw her. As we didn't have tags, there was no way we could monitor further where she went. The team returned to shore and packed up our gear. Time to go home. After debriefing and did some evaluation all of the team went home.

She's Dead

Last night (Sunday, 29 July) we were shocked by an information received from fishermen at the Muara Gembong district, few miles west of the Tanjung Pakis village, that they saw a stranded whale. Could it be our whale? Or another one?

JAAN as the rescue mission co-ordinator then launched their team to the said location. On Monday 30 July morning at around 9am we received a confirmation that the stranded was our whale, and that she's dead :(

So sad, yet it's expected as we have learned that the chance of survival has been very slim. Our re-floating effort was based on two purposes: (i) to enable survival if she could stand, and (ii) to let her die in peace, in the water where she belongs.

When found, her belly was already inflated by gas. Decomposition had begun. We then notify the authority about the situation and arranging permits for handling the body. The Ministry of Forestry agency for protected wild animal agreed with our plan to tow the body to the sea, to an island where we could rest her underwater for natural decomposition and to have the skeleton intact for us to visit some day to remember her.

Memorial service will be conducted this morning (31 July) at 9am, when we will put weights on her body and send her underwater, near the Kotok Island of the Kepulauan Seribu at the Jakarta Bay.

This rescue effort was the first ever documented whale saving mission in Indonesia. We shall remember the day, and will spread the word to everyone to continuously protect our whales and our ocean.

The Cause of Stranding

We were not sure what caused the stranding. From internet resources we learned that there are many things that could cause a cetacean stranding. A factor that we think could be the cause is the seismic test conducted near the Tanjung Pakis area in search of oil. This is not confirmed, but possible.

Credits

I personally would like to appreciate everyone involved in the rescue effort. All of you are among the best people I have ever known. And this cause had granted us stronger bonding as ocean defenders, committed to an oath to protect our ocean. There were many of people in the effort, and those I could remember are my friends, new friends, brothers and sisters in ocean protection from:

  • Jakarta Animal Aid Network
  • Scuba Diver Indonesia divers community
  • Divemag community
  • Global Dive community
  • Liquid Dive community
  • Sagara SAR team, Karawang
  • Tagana SAR team, Karawang
  • Komando Pasukan Khusus (Kopasus, Indonesia Special Force), Cijantung & Serang
  • KPLP (Indonesian Coast Guard)
  • Pelindo (Harbor authority of Jakarta)
  • and many others...

You are the greatest!

Official Release

For official report on the rescue mission, please get in touch with Pramudya Harzani from Jakarta Animal Aid Network (moedh@yahoo.com)