News of sightings, strandings and other encounters with whales in the Tristan da Cunha group.

See also:

Southern Right Whale Dolphins at Tristan
Edited from Peter Ryan's report in the August 2015 Tristan Newsletter

Peter's splendid photos of Southern Right Whale Dolphins
on 29th September 2014 from aboard SA Agulhas II

One of the least known dolphin species is the Southern Right Whale Dolphin Lissodelphis peronii, which Best et al. (2009) reported based on the capture of a single animal by a whaling ship about 60 km east of Tristan on 10 December 1847. I was thus very excited to encounter a group of about 70 of these spectacular animals roughly midway between Nightingale and Tristan on 29 September 2014. The pod ran in front of the S.A. Agulhas II for a few minutes, before moving away from the ship. It was just more than 30 years since my only previous sighting of this elusive animal, off Marion Island in August 1984.

On discussing the record with friends in Cape Town, it emerged that there was another record from Tristan waters, albeit farther from the islands. In April 1989, Barrie Rose was aboard the South African fisheries research vessel Africana II, conducting research around Tristan. On 24 April he observed a pod of at least 100 Southern Right Whale Dolphins, loosely associated with Long-finned Pilot Whales Globicephala melas and Bottle-nosed Dolphins Tursiops truncatus at 39 ° 49.5 ¢ S 12 ° 58.8 ¢ W, roughly 300 km south of Tristan and 260 km WNW of Gough Island. Presumably the same group of animals was seen the following day 160 km farther south at 41 ° 21.4 ¢ S 13 ° 01.8 ¢ W. On this occasion they remained with the ship (which was on station at the time) for more than 30 minutes, twice sounding for 6-8 minutes at a time. Interestingly, this appears to be the first record of Bottle-nosed Dolphins from Tristan waters!

With their striking colouration, extremely long, slender bodies and no dorsal fin, Southern Right Whale Dolphins are easy to identify. It thus likely that they are genuinely scarce visitors to Tristan waters.

Important Discovery as a New Whale Species is Found Stranded on Tristan
Report from James Glass and Photos from Norman Glass

On the afternoon of Sunday 23rd November 2014, James Glass was informed by Lewis Glass and Alan Swain (who had just returned after a trip to Stony Hill to mark their calves) that a whale was washed up at Cave Gulch / East Beach at the far east of Deadman's Bay on the south coast of Tristan between Stony Hill and The Caves.

The fisheries RIB Jasus tristani with fisheries staff went to have a look, as they heard it was still alive the day before. The guys landed at the Caves and walked across to Stony Beach to have a look,but it was found dead.

They took some measurements (it was 3.58 metres long) and photos and it has been identified by Professor Peter Best as a juvenile Antarctic minke whale, Balaenoptera bonaerensis.
This is an important discovery as it is a new record for a stranding for this species on the Tristan da Cunha Islands.

They did not have time to do anything else as it was getting late, although it is their intention to make another visit to collect skin samples as soon as they get a chance.

Many thanks are granted to Lewis and Alan who despite being 65 and 64 years respectively, had walked the approximately 30 mile round trip to Stony Beach to ear mark their calves, for reporting the finding.

See the Whales Page for a full list and more details of Tristan Whales and Dolphins.

Photos show the beached whale on 23rd November 2014.

The species is amongst the smallest of the baleen whales.
This specimen is probably a juvenile as calves are normally 2.73 m at birth and mature adults average 7.6 - 8.9 metres long.
They are a very common Southern hemisphere whale,
occurring also north to Equatorial waters
and in the South Pacific and Indian Oceans
as well as the South Atlantic.

Stranded Whale found near the Molly Gulch

Photos from James Glass (left)
and Drew Campbell (below)
show a stranded beaked whale,
probably Shepherd's Beaked Whale
Tasmacetus shepherdi
on a boulder beach
near The Administrator's Hut / the Molly Gulch
on Sunday 9th March 2014


PWD Director Drew Campbell reports that the whale may have been around the area for a few days prior to stranding. He saw a large whale of same species in exactly that area on the Thursday prior to the Fri/Sat stranding when aboard the Seaspray with Gary Repetto and Phillip Rogers accompanying Stuart McPherson on a filming trip. The whale surfaced very close to the boat, but unfortunately dived very shortly after so no film was made. Shaun Green reported on Saturday afternoon that he thought they had seen a stranded whale at the Admin's hut when passing by boat that afternoon.
When Drew found the whale on Saturday early evening it was very fresh with very little sign of discolouring, bloating or smell. There was already internal pressure forcing material from the mouth and anal areas, but generally the carcass was still in good condition. The two visiting marine biologists Holly and Rohan also report seeing what could have been a Shepherds Beaked whale on the previous Sunday so it is possible the whale had been in the area for quite some time.
We aim to publish any reports and images of whales seen at sea or discovered stranded as knowledge of whales, especially the beaked species, is patchy.



Islanders witness stranding of rare Shepherd’s Beaked Whales Tasmacetus shepherdi
Report from Tristan RSPB Project Officer Katrine Herian

Photo from Sean Burns of the Shepherd’s Beaked Whales stranded west of Calshot Harbour taken on 13th January 2012

Photo from Katrine Herian
of the male Shepherd’s Beaked Whale
on 14 th January 2012.

Close-up photo from Katrine Herian
showing the distinctive colour pattern
on the beached whale.

Around lunchtime on Friday 13th January 2012, two whales were spotted off Calshot Harbour on Tristan, heading west. Shortly afterwards the larger of the two whales, which turned out to be a female, appeared to have beached itself on the reef west of the harbour. Observers reported the whale was bleeding from its tail and fins. They then watched as the whale edged itself off the reef and navigated one of the deeper channels back out to sea beyond the breakers. The whale turned and then seemed to head at full speed straight for the reef, the impact of hitting the rocks snapped its beak in a profusion of blood. Not long after the whale appeared to have died.

Over the thirty minutes that this took place, the smaller whale a young male was reported as frantically trying to get on to the beach. This too was bleeding. It was then turned by the waves and seemed to be heading out to sea diving and surfacing as it went with its tail thrashing in bursts of energy. Suddenly it stopped very abruptly, as if it had hit the rocks on the bottom. After this, the whale turned and headed back in towards the beach where it died soon afterwards.

Among those who saw these events unfold over about an hour from the cliffs and beach, were Conservation Officer Trevor Glass and Administrator Sean Burns. As soon as they realised what was happening they discussed whether or not they could get a boat and fix a line to tow the whales off the shore, but the heavy surf and rocks made this impossible, and too dangerous to try and get men in the water to turn the whales around. Even if they had been able to get to the whales, it is unlikely that this would have made a difference. The whales appeared to deliberately beach themselves on the shore although it remains unknown what caused them to do this.

Further photos from Katrine Herian showing: Left: Shepherd’s Beaked Whale beak showing distinctive dentition; Centre: Dorsal view of beak, ‘melon’ and blowhole; Right view on 15th January showing a stranded Shepherd’s Beaked Whale (female) washed up west of Calshot Harbour. Much of the skin has been removed by the abrasive action of the rocks and the dorsal fin has been eaten, probably by a shark. One was seen in the shallows around the body on the previous day when it lay further out on the reef.

From looking at the skin colour patterning and dentition of the smaller whale which was accessible on the beach, it became apparent that onlookers had witnessed an important event, the stranding of rarely seen Shepherd’s beaked whale Tasmacetus shepherdi. Identification was confirmed from photographs the next day by cetacean expert Peter Best in South Africa who was quick to affirm this as a ‘very important and exciting event’.

Shepherd’s beaked whale is only known from the southern hemisphere, with all records to date having occurred between the latitudes of 30 ° S and 55 ° S. The majority of stranding records are from New Zealand but there are six previous records of strandings on Tristan, but in each case the whale or whales found were already dead. This is the first time that the stranding event of a Shepherd’s beaked whale has been recorded here. In 1983 two beaked whales were found on the beach south of Anchorstock Point; in 1984 one was found at Deadman’s Beach, Stony Hill Point; in 1987 two were found dead at Runaway Beach and in 1995 a large beaked whale was found dead at Noisy Beach.

The colour pattern of Shepherd’s beaked whale is quite distinctive: the beak is dark but the ‘melon’ or forehead, as far back as the blowhole, is a pale bluish-grey. The rest of the body is a darker bluish-grey brown above and paler grey below, with extensions of grey up onto the flanks behind the dorsal fin and from just behind the flipper onto the shoulder. The dentition of Shepherd’s beaked whale is unique among ziphiids (beaked and bottlenose whales) in that there are multiple teeth in both upper and lower jaws, with the pair at the tip of the lower jaw much larger than the others. This larger pair of teeth only erupts in males.

Over the next few days the bodies of the whales shifted position along the beach, but eventually it was possible to reach both of them to determine the sex of each. The larger adult female measured approximately 6.75m as the beak had been heavily damaged during the stranding and a portion of both upper and lower jaws was missing. Two mammary slits were visible confirming its sex, these lie on either side of the genital opening. On the male which measured 5.05m in length from the tip of the upper jaw to the middle of the trailing edge of the tail flukes, the single genital slit was visible.

For the first 24 hours after stranding the distinctive colour pattern of the skin on the male was visible. After this time, the skin darkened and had the whale been first noticed at this time, the pattern would have been difficult to make out. With advice from Peter Best on what data and samples to collect, it was important not to lose the opportunity to contribute to furthering the knowledge of this species. Stomach contents were collected from the two large stomachs of the female and skin and blubber samples were taken for analysis from both whales. Stomach contents have been taken from only two other Shepherd’s beaked whales, these are needed to determine what the whales feed on. From an initial examination of the contents, lenses from the eyes of squid and some fish bones were visible. The contents will be examined more closely by scientists in South Africa along with the skull and teeth of the young male that are being preserved.

It may never be known what caused these two whales to beach themselves on Tristan. There are theories that whales may strand themselves due to illness or injury, and other possible causes put forward include weather conditions, underwater seismic activity, magnetic field anomalies and unfamiliar underwater topography. Loud sounds associated with seismic exploration or military activity have been implicated elsewhere in mass strandings of other beaked whales (Best, 2007).

With thanks to Trevor Glass, Sean and Marina Burns and Stanley Swain for their accounts of the stranding event, to the Fisheries Department for collecting samples and to Brad Robson and Peter Best for their advice.

Free Willie Freeing Willie the Humpback Whale ~ an amazing Tristan rescue success from Conrad Glass

On Tuesday 29th November factory manager Erik McKenzie spotted a whale with a buoy and net caught around its tail about 200 metres off Calshot Harbour. Erik alerted Sean Burns who contacted Conrad Glass to assemble a Search and Rescue crew. Conrad was joined by Neil Swain, and Conrad's son Leon who left the harbour at 12.15 to investigate, carrying with them a boat hook and knife to attempt to free the whale. Sean Burns went along as photographer.

Photos from the RIB
by Sean Burns:

Left: approaching the stricken whale
with its head visible
and the buoy around its tail.

Right: Leon reaching out and cutting the netting around the buoy.


Conrad takes up the story:

We were directed towards the whale by Eric from on top of the cliff via VHF radio. Sean kept radio contact; Leon stood by with knife in hand; while Neil stood in the bows holding on to the painter (bow rope) with one hand, the boat hook ready in the other.

Suddenly Neil pointed with the boat hook and shouted “Thar she blows”: 20 meters in front of the RIB, the whale surfaced, pulling a fishing buoy with a short stick attached. The buoy was about six metres behind the whale. I increased speed to catch the whale and steered the boat along side of it. The whale was a humpback, about eight meters long and about two meters wide.

We made several approaches, trying to get as close as possible to identify the amount and type of fishing line – (were any hooks attached?) and gauge how close we could get to the whale, which was very stressed. Each time we approached, the whale would dive deeply, taking the buoy so far under the water with what appeared to be hardly any effort – indeed, going so deep that we could not see it. Both Neil and I were rather cautious in how we were going to attempt any rescue when we saw the size and actions of the whale.

The whale would remain under for about five minutes before re-surfacing again. As soon as we approached, it would dive deeply again. “This is not giving us much time to hook onto the line and cut it” I said. “I don’t see how we can cut the line if the whale keeps diving”. Neil said: “Guys: we have to do something to help”. Sean said the concern was apparent in his voice.

Neil added: “If we can get the buoy cut off the rest of the line, it may work free itself”. Leon pointed out: “It’s the buoy that's keeping the line taut, as the whale swims or dives, the buoy keeps the tension on the line”.

I looked at Neil and Leon: “Right! lets do it; when the whale surfaces this time I will get close to it then let the RIB’s momentum carry us close. Hopefully it will not force it to dive”. We waited for a few moments: “There it is” said Leon, pointing to the whale that had just surfaced 10 metres on our port side.

I quickly turned the RIB, cutting back to get behind the whale, then turning to allow the RIB to coast forward. Neil hooked onto the buoy with the boat hook, and quickly lifted it into the RIB with a mass of tangled line. “Now cut the line quickly” I said to Leon, who was standing on the port bow, but had to move to starboard bow to get at the fishing line.

“Watch out for the fish hooks” Neil told Leon, as he frantically sawed at the line. First Leon cut the buoy loose, then Neil pulled another handful of tangled fishing line with a large hook attached and cut this. Neil said to Leon: “ I think the single bit will come free” and “hold the line taut” Leon responded as Neil pulled more slack into the boat to be cut off.

During this time I nudged the RIB closer behind the whale until we were about two meters from its tail. The strange thing is the whale seemed to sense that we were helping it, for the creature remained hardly moving. As Neil let go of the last bit of line, the whale dived deeply, swimming out to sea. Sean got some photos of this.

Neil said that he could not see any other tangled line about its tail, so any single bits should work free. We identified the buoy, line and hook to be from a Japanese or Taiwanese long-line fishing vessel. Some of these lines are about sixty miles long. No doubt the whale got caught in one of the broken lines. These vessels fish illegally in the South Atlantic, We turned back to the harbour to clear immigration on the yacht “Setna” which had just arrived and had been told to keep clear of the whale while it had the buoy attached.

I must add that the fishing line and buoy caught on the whale did not belong to Ovenstone Agency Ltd, the fishing company who have the contract to fish for crayfish in Tristan waters. Of all the rescues I have been asked to organise, freeing “Willie the Humpbacked Whale” rates the most unique by far!

Conrad Glass MBE is the author of Rockhopper Copper which relates many real-life stories. Perhaps when the book goes into its third edition this 'Free Willie' story will be included?

Above and Centre:
The freed whale swims away
The victorious crew of Leon, Neil and Conrad showing the 'ghost' gear abandoned by a poacher fishing crew that had ensnared the humpback whale

First Tristan sighting of a
Pygmy Sperm Whale
Kogia breviceps

Report from James Glass

On the morning of the 19th January 2011, there was much excitement when it was reported by David Swain, who was working on a barge at the time, that a whale was in the harbour. It seemed impossible at the time, given that the harbour is less than 2m deep in places, but it was true. The harbour quickly become busy with everyone who had heard came for a look, the school children as well as others in the community.


Plans were put in place to try and get the whale (which was badly damaged) out of the harbour as quickly as possible. James and Robin, with the help of others got the Zodiac out of the boat house and was about to launch it when, Thomas Lafaille a Frenchman working for the CTBTO, who had a wetsuit in his car at the harbour, entered the water and after a few attempts managed to head the whale out to sea, through the 50ft entrance of the harbour. The whale beached itself again west of the volcano, and again managed to get off.  It was not seen stranded again.

From the photos taken and sent to experts, it is thought to be a short-headed sperm whale (Kogia sp), which has not been recorded from the Tristan area before. There are two species, the Pygmy Sperm Whale Kogia breviceps and the Dwarf Sperm Whale Kogia sima. They are quite difficult to tell apart, but the pygmy is bigger (up to 3.3 m, compared to 2.74 m for the dwarf) and the dorsal fin is nearer the tail than the head, whereas in the dwarf it is about in the middle of the body. There are other differences but we would need other views of the mouth, teeth, dorsal fin, etc. They tend to be repeat stranders, so Islanders will be vigilant for other sightings to clarify identification.

First identification of Shepherd’s Beaked Whales Tasmacetus shepherdi at Tristan from Richard Grundy

Photos taken on 15th April 1983
show Islanders
Ian Lavarello, Jimmy Rogers
and Darren Repetto
at Anchorstock
with the two beached
Shepherd's Beaked Whales

Island fishermen had reported seeing stranded whales at Anchorstock so Richard led a small group to investigate. Families probably thought the walk to Anchorstock too dangerous so only the intrepid Ian and Darren (of his pupils in Class 5 at St Mary's School) and young adult Jimmy Glass came along. However this meant the Administrator's Land Rover could be used! Walking was difficult as the usual path had been obscured by recent falls and wind-blown sand around the Bluff made going uncomfortable.

The stranded whales were measured and information sent off for analysis. Later it was confirmed they were Shepherd's Beaked Whales and this was the first confirmed sighting for the Tristan da Cunha Islands.

There were two bull animals found. Measurements were made by and from these estimates of volume and weight:


Bull 1

Bull 2

7.35 m
Maximum Girth
60 cm
55 cm
Front Flippers
50 cm
50 cm
Back Flippers
60 cm
60 cm
Eye Slits
3 cm
3 cm
Double row of c 24 top and bottom.
c 10 m3
c 10 m3
c 6 tonnes
c 6 tonnes
Tristan Island Studies
This was an example of the exciting fieldwork which Richard was able to complete with Tristan pupils when establishing the Tristan Island Studies Course, then examined by the UK Southern Examining group at CSE level. Darren still has his Tristan Studies folder which Richard was delighted to see when he returned to Tristan for Christmas 2011 aboard MS Island Sky. It is brilliant that another pupil, Trevor Glass is now Head of the Tristan Conservation Department.
Beaked Whale found at East Beach Stonyhill

Richard also found and photographed another beaked whale (possibly a Shepherd's Beaked Whale) at East Beach, the far east end of Deadman's Bay when walking with Margaret from The Caves to Stonyhill on 7th January 1985. The whale was badly decomposed but its distinctive beak and teeth were clearly visible. Some teeth were prised from the jaw, cleaned and are still safely stored away!

Photographs taken on 7th January 1985 show Margaret Grundy with the beached whale and a close-up view with a blue pen shown to denote approximate scale.