A 100-hour ordeal for rescuers trying to save an 85-foot-long sperm whal

  • In Ningbo, China, it took rescuers 32 hours to release the whale back into the water after it had become anxious. The sperm whale, measuring 65 feet (9 meters) in length, was trapped on a mud flat, and it faced certain death from suffocation or dehydration.

    Local authorities attempted a rescue with five boats, but the whale was too large to move. Volunteers used buckets to douse the whale with water as they waited for the tide to rise. Finally, at 10 p.m. local time, the water rose enough for a tugboat to pull the whale deeper into the ocean.

    Sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) are deep-sea hunters that routinely hunt for prey in the frigid waters more than a mile (1.6 kilometers) below the ocean surface. Heat is among the greatest dangers to a stranded sperm whale, as blubber keeps internal body heat in and leads to overheating if the whale cannot get rid of the heat another way. Getting rid of body heat is done through water contact with the skin, especially at thin structures like flukes and flippers, and very vascular areas like the tongue.

    Strandings can occur for different reasons. In some cases, there is something wrong with the whale that affects its ability to survive in the long run. Not long after a mass stranding of 43 sperm whales along the Oregon coast in the early 1970s, another calf was found in the same area, floundering in the shallows. The calf was taken to an oceanarium for rehabilitation, but it died within days. A necropsy revealed that the calf had a twisted gut, a condition that occurs when the gut literally twists in on itself, constricting blood supply and causing shock.

    Strandings are difficult on sperm whales, and animals don’t always survive even if they are rescued. However, the whale in Ningbo was an adult male, which likely saved the population as a whole, as adult males live alone. This meant that the adult male in Ningbo also stranded alone, limiting the damage to the population as a whole.

    Rescuers in Ningbo were able to cut the ropes towing the whale at 5:30 a.m. local time on April 20, and the animal began swimming independently. While the whale’s ultimate fate will probably never be known, the rescue was a noble effort and a testament to the dedication of the rescuers.