When a whale drops by for a visit
Photos courtesy of Jessie delos Reyes.
At around 3 A.M. on December 10, 2009, the town of Nasugbu, Batangas had an unusual visitor: a 29-foot whale stranded in the shallow waters.  Village patrolman Herman Reyes spotted the animal while conducting his usual rounds along the beach of Barangay Calayo.  A series of phone calls followed the discovery, and by daybreak, officials from various agencies had started arriving at the area, constituting a hastily-formed local response team. Among the first on the scene were Municipal Agriculture Officer Rhodora Agapay and Jessie delos Reyes of CAPOceans, an environmental organization based in the adjacent town of Calatagan.  Delos Reyes had undergone a Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Rescue Training organized by Conservation International-Philippines in 2008, and was only too willing to lend his assistance to partners in Nasugbu. Other agencies that sent their representatives to the area included the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the Philippine Coast Guard, the Philippine National Police, as well as barangay and municipal officials.

One of the first things to be done in a marine mammal stranding is to observe the animal’s behavior and assess its condition, both of which the response team promptly did.  They observed that the whale, which was in waters about 3.7 feet deep, appeared calm and was breathing regularly, but would move or trash its tail when the people got too close or too noisy.  The animal was also found to have about 16 wounds on its body and the municipal veterinarian was called in to administer to the wounds, which was later assessed by experts to be inflicted by bites of the cookie-cutter shark.

The incident naturally attracted a lot of attention in the village, with the local school even deciding to release its students early so they can witness the rare spectacle.

Some of the onlookers were later tapped to assist in releasing the whale, which was done after the veterinarian had administered antibiotics to the wounded animal.  About two dozen men worked together in lifting the whale (assisted by a rope sling) and guiding it to deeper waters. The whale immediately swam out of the cove as soon as it was able to float, and a boat followed it to ensure that it safely reaches open water.

Through the videos and photographs taken at the scene, marine mammal experts were later able to identify the species as a Bryde’s whale (pronounced "broodus"). This species is a member of the baleen whale family and is considered as one of the “great whales.”  Although there may be some difficulties in differentiating among the three possible forms of the Bryde’s whale (Balaenoptera brydei, B. edeni, or B. omurai), the experts examining the photos were able to identify the Nasugbu whale as the Balaenoptera edeni.

In the Philippines, historical records indicate that the Bryde’s whale was hunted in the Bohol Sea in a small-scale by fishers from Bohol and Camiguin using hand-held gaff hooks and harpoons, respectively.  This type of whaling was practiced in the region for over a century.

“Abundance and distribution of this species within our country’s waters is scant. This makes the Nasugbu whale stranding incident significant,” according to marine mammal expert Jo Marie Acebes (PhD candidate, Asian Research Centre, Murdoch University, Western Australia).  Acebes formerly worked with Conservation International-Philippines and was also among the team of experts who provided marine mammal training for de los Reyes and other participants from the Verde Island Passage.

Cetaceans such as whales are key ecological indicators.  High up there in the marine food chain, declining numbers of cetaceans such as whales can cause imbalances in the marine ecosystem, consequently affecting fisheries and those that depend on them.

Acebes said that reports of live baleen whale strandings are quite uncommon in the Philippines, and the data gathered from such reports are usually insufficient to confirm the species of the animals.  “The commendable documentation and response of the people of Nasugbu, led by Jessie De Los Reyes, deserves recognition.  Their quick response and resourcefulness made it possible to help the whale return back out to sea.  The information from this incident adds to the knowledge we have of the species in the country,” she said.

In the Philippines, several trained groups of marine mammal stranding response teams are spread out across the country, forming the Philippine Marine Mammal Stranding Response Network. The network was formed through the efforts of conservation NGOs, DENR, Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, and local marine mammal researchers, scientists and volunteers. It was formally put in place after the creation of the Inter-Agency Task Force for Marine Mammal Conservation (IATFMMC) in 1993. Members of this network continue to provide training to local groups who want to be able to respond properly to stranding incidents.

In the Nasugbu stranding incident, the cooperation and flow of communication among the villagers, local officials, resource persons and trained personnel helped ensure the whale’s safety as well as the conduct of appropriate actions needed to document the event for research and information purposes.  As Acebes noted, it was ““a good example of how adequately informed, concerted efforts of a group of people can make a big difference.”
Photos courtesy of Jessie delos Reyes.
Click here to watch a video of the whale release
Click here to read more about Jo Marie Acebes' research on Historical Whaling in the Philippines