Cuvier’s beaked whale stranded at the backstrand of Derrynane Beach Co Kerry

Backstrand, Derrynane Beach Co Kerry
Friday, 13th January 2023

An adult female Cuvier’s beaked whale stranded at the backstrand of Derrynane Beach on Friday 13th January. She was relatively fresh and her carcass was moved by a local with a digger from the beach’s channel onto the Lamb’s Head side of the bay above the high tide mark by Christina Winkler which made the whale accessible for necropsy.

On Monday 16th I was joined by Christina along with Tash from Sea Synergy and local people (Lorna and Giovani) to necropsy and document this rare whale. We spent the day opening the animal and taking samples to support future studies but the main aim was to access her body cavity and see if she had any prey remains inside. From the outside her left side still had skin remaining where she was floating above sea level but along her tail stock there was a number of shark bites scavenging her around the genital area and on the dorsal fin too.
The National Museum of Ireland – Natural History was interested in acquiring the whale’s skeleton for the museum’s collections so we took care to not excessively damage her bones while conducting her necropsy. Kerry County Council also provided us with the time to work on the whale before her remains were disposed of which was invaluable to work on her and to secure her skeleton.
After about 4 hours in scattered rain and hail showers we cleared space and opened up her body cavity and photographed what we saw while checking her organs and taking samples. Her stomach was located and when we made the first incision two objects immediately came to light, squid beaks and plastic bags. The main stomach’s centre area held at least 4 different plastic bags ranging in colour from blue to brown but there was still space for the whale to feed as evident by the surrounding squid beaks.
Cuvier’s are particularly susceptible to eating plastic with a number of high profile cases reported elsewhere in the world but it was still a shame to find these bags inside her stomach. Another more tightly backed plastic bag was found inside her intestine that appeared to fully block it. Her kidneys were also full of parasitic worms which was very abnormal. The photographs taken during the necropsy will help paint a bigger picture of this whale’s condition when she died but the plastic blocking her intestine likely impacted her negatively. While sad, this stranding provided a unique opportunity to gather information on this individual whale and provide an insight into the life history of this species in Irish waters.
Her skeleton was also secured for the Natural History Museum after a number of days flensing and separating her bones. Once cleaned it will be delivered to the museum.
This necropsy and skeleton salvaging work would not have been possible without the enormous help given by Christina Winkler, Tash and Owen from Sea Synergy along with John O’Cllaghan. It was not a particularly nice job at times but a very important one. Co-operation from Kerry County Council was also key to have the time to work with this whale before her remains were removed.
by Seán O’Callaghan