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The story of the sperm whale 3418

The morning of February 3 appeared the body of a sperm whale floating on the Melenara littoral, on the east coast of Gran Canaria. It had a deep cut on the head and others on the fluke. It was a juvenile male 9.1 m long. Fifteen years before, on the outside of Pico island (Azores), researcher Lisa Steiner had given him an identity : the sperm whale with the identification number 3418. He belonged to the Whitehead group in honor of researcher Hal Whitehead. Years earlier he shocked part of the scientific community when he declare that cetaceans had culture. In fact, sperm whales are cultural animals that form groups composed by adult females with their calfs and juveniles. They emit “clicks” for the echolocation, detect their presses and communicate. Each animal uses a specific pulse sequence called “codas” that provides information about the individual’s identity, membership in the social unit and the vocal clan. Let’s go back to the sperm whale 3418, seen for the first time in 2004 when he was just a calf with her mother. Azorean people bring him into their heart because they saw it grow up. 13th September, 2018, was the last time he was observed alive in those waters. The news of his death was a headline for a newspaper in the Canary Islands but in Azores it was more than this. The whale watching groups were moved in front of this death. If wasn’t for them, 3418 would be one more number in the crude and shameful statistics of sperm whales stranded in the Canary Islands overwhelmed by boats. A few days later, on March 13, an immature female measuring 7.8 m appeared floating on the beach of San Borondón a few kilometers from where 3418 appeared. A few weeks later another one was found in El Médano, Tenerife. All dead by collision. Of 49 sperm whales stranded in the Canary Islands between 2000 and 2018, 4 died of natural causes. Forty-five cases were attributed to human factors and of these 44 to collisions with boats. Most of them were females, juvenils and calfs (data from the Canary Islands Government Stranding Network). Probably this number represents a small fraction of the deaths in the ocean because it is certain that the most of the corpses do not reach the coast. Sperm whales are extraordinary creatures that never cease to amaze who study them. Beyond the data and their ecological importance to the oceans, they are superlative, intelligent, and sensitive beings. Their populations were almost annihilated by whaling pressure (between the years 1750-1850 and 1945- 1980) and now they face chemical and acoustic contamination, ingestion of plastic, modification of their habitat by climate change and collisions with fast ferries. Sperm whale is listed as vulnerable in the National Catalog of Threatened Species (R.D. 139/2011), in the Canary Islands Regional Catalog (L.7L / PPL-001 of 2009) and is listed as “Vulnerable” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The story of the sperm whale 3418 taught us that this it is not only a conservation problem in the Canary Islands, but in the entire Macaronesian subregion. It is paradoxical that such a vocal species die silently in the Lucky Islands. There isn’t information about this species in the archipelago due to lack of studies. Collision-related mortality could minimized by recommending effective mitigation measures based on the scientific knowledge. The Society for the Study of Cetacean in the Canary Archipelago (SECAC) propose the “Sperm Whale Canary Islands Project” that aims to answer basic questions about the species in the archipelago, using Passive Acoustic Monitoring (PAM) and photo-identification (Photo-ID). This project wants to give a voice to these animals in order that competent administrations take action in the conservation of this species.

Vidal Martín Martel

Francesca Fusar-Poli

Society for the Study of the Cetacean in the Canary Archipelago (SECAC)

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