The carcass of the sperm whale which beached in December on a sandbank near Texel has proved to be a valuable treasure-house. During the dissection of the animal by employees of Ecomare an exceptional amount of ambergris was found in its rectum. These smelly lumps are very rare and of great value to the perfume industry.
Last December the dead sperm whale washed ashore a few days after the humpback which had beached while still alive. Therefore it had hardly been in the news. The nearly 30-tonne adult male had died at sea and stranded on the Razende Bol. Sperm whales are the largest toothed whales on earth and are uncommon in the North Sea. Great was the surprise when out of the whale’s rectum came huge chunks of ambergris. It was already special to find a dead sperm whale, the discovery of the ambergris in the body made it exceptional. Normally, ambergris is defecated and therefore sometimes it is found in small quantities of no more than a few pounds on beaches. However, this sperm whale contained five chunks of ambergris with a total weight of 83 kilogram, accumulated in the rectum.
Ambergris is found only in 1 of 100 sperm whale bodies, usually in small amounts. It is not clear why some sperm whales produce ambergris and others do not. Probably in order to defecate sharp parts in their food, like cuttlefish beaks, without damage to their entrails. Healthy sperm whales spit out these cuttlefish beaks when they are in their first or second stomach. In some sperm whales there is a leak between the 2nd and 3rd stomach, causing the sharp cuttlefish beaks to go further inside the gastrointestinal tract. The irritation which the sharp beaks cause there makes the sperm whale produce ambergris as a response. Usually that is just defecated, but sometimes large quantities of amber accumulate in the rectum and cause congestion like that.
Experts from France have looked at the ambergris for Ecomare, and on the basis of their estimation of quality, the value is estimated at hundreds of thousands of euros. For scientists, this discovery is of exceptional importance. So, the amber lumps went to the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of the University of Utrecht for a CT scan and X-ray examination.
The amber of the Texel sperm whale will be sold. It is too precious to exhibit it. After consultation with the Ministry of Economic Affairs it became clear that any proceeds for Ecomare could benefit the objective of Ecomare: education and information about the Wadden Sea and North Sea. A small piece of the ambergris will remain at Ecomare and will be exhibited there next to the skeleton of the sperm whale. Of the total amount of ambergris, a cast has also been made which will become a museum exhibit as well. During the next months, the whale’s skeleton will be put together. The public will be able to see that.
Another issue: why did these two whales beach so soon after each other, on the same island?
On his blog, Arjan Berkhuysen, director of the Wadden sea conservation organisation, discusses this question.
He writes that shortly before the beachings, there were NATO war games in the Wadden sea region. Military planes broke the sound barrier. The sound of these war games may have disoriented the whales. Like navy sonar causes whale deaths.
There is still no scientific consensus on why humpback Johanna and the sperm whale beached on Noorderhaaks.
A spokeswoman for Naturalis Biodiversity Center, which investigates the animal, said so.
The beached whale was at one point called ‘Johannes’. This happened when it was alive and the sex could not yet be determined.
The investigation into the cause of death has not yet come to a conclusion. ”On the outside of the body no damage was found, for example, signs of a collision with a ship. Also, our first examination of the intestines has not established a cause yet” said the spokeswoman.
As for the humpback, it is still alive, but said to be in a very bad condition. The Dutch government has decided to euthanize the animal with a painkiller tonight.
Ecomare museum which tried to save the whale, getting it swimming again, says this is the government’s decision, not theirs and they are not present near the humpback now. Sea Shepherdprotests against the government decision. They say that with painkillers, one cannot euthanize a big whale.
Yesterday, the Department of Economic Affairs which includes agriculture instructed two veterinarians to go and look at the humpback whale. When they found that the animal was suffering unbearably, the Ministry commissioned them to get the animal to sleep with a painkiller. They have done that on site. Today Mayor Giskes and an expert of Economic Affairs will look at the humpback. The expert will report to the Ministry how things are now with the animal.
Yesterday, there were messages on the Internet that the doctors had supposedly killed the whale.
It looks like that is not true. Ecomare said that the only way one can euthanize a big whale is with explosives; and they did not want that.