Principal scientist at the East London Museum, Kevin Cole is the go-to person when dolphins and whales are found beached or stranded along the East London coastline – and last year was the busiest on record, with the deaths of nine of the mammals.
The deaths occurred between Bhirha River in the west and Yellow Sands resort in the east, and included five whales and four dolphins.
Cole said discharges of sewage close to the city, noise pollution, increased discharges of metal and chemical pollutants, diseases and collisions with boats could have been responsible for the fatalities.
“Our area is heavily polluted, with sewage outfalls close to East London [and] there is increased traffic and barotrauma [injuries from increased water pressure], caused by the seismic testing of marine beds for gas and oil along the KZN coast,” said Cole.
The seismic testing took place off KwaZulu-Natal early last year.
The year’s first case was the death of a pygmy killer whale, a species seen rarely in the region. It was found stranded at Bhirha. The last case was the death of an Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin, found stranded at the mouth of the Nahoon River in November.
The pygmy killer whale, which was pregnant, had died from an ovarian cyst, while it was unclear why the bottlenose dolphin died. Young long-beaked, common dolphins, two humpback whales and a rare Cuvier’s beaked whale also died on our shores. In June, the stranding and death of a 22m fin whale at Cove Rock was the first on record in the area.
The deaths were particularly poignant for Cole, who developed an interest in marine mammals on his first visit to Port Elizabeth’s Bayworld as a child in 1972. He has completed post-graduate studies in marine biology and conservation.
Cole recalled a battle to save a whale last year: “I spent six hours in the water with the animal and mid-afternoon, at high tide, tried to encourage it to roll into deeper water a few metres away. The whale was exhausted after numerous attempts [to save it]. Considerable fatigue and possible damage to internal organs later caused its death.”
Being affiliated to Bayworld, the scientist works with marine mammal curator Dr Greg Hofmeyr, who curates the largest marine mammal collection in the southern hemisphere.
“Formal investigations, necropsies [autopsies] and collection of material have been extended under the Bayworld permit to me at the East London Museum. The East London Museum can respond to strandings that Bayworld cannot attend to,” Cole said.
He emphasised that marine mammals, alive or dead, were protected by law, meaning members of the public were not permitted to interfere with a stranding or remove marine mammal material from a beach.
“I am saddened by the unnecessary mortality of whales and dolphins due to our negative influence on the oceans,” he said. “As with most people, there is a connection with whales and dolphins and I have responded emotionally to that mammalian connection when dealing with strandings, especially when the animal has been alive. Intuitively, one senses that dolphins and whales have an advanced communication and a sociable structure that we can learn from.”
lCole will present a talk about the strandings at a Friends of the Museum and Border Historical Society meeting tomorrow at the Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer hall at 7.30pm. All are welcome and there is no charge. — firstname.lastname@example.org