whale collage 2
Photos by (clockwise from left): Marcus Chua, Becky Lee, Letchumi Mani
 

1. The present specimen is an adult female sperm whale of 10.6 m total length that was found off Jurong Island on 10 July 2015. The scientific name is Physeter macrocephalus. This is the first record of a sperm whale in Singapore’s territorial waters. It appears to be the first confirmed record of its kind in the coastal waters around Peninsular Malaysia. Previous records of floating carcasses of large whales in Singapore have been baleen whales of the family Balaenopteridae. As scientists never had the chance to examine them in detail, their identity cannot be confirmed.

In fact, this is the only specimen of large cetacean (the group that includes whales and dolphins) that scientists from Singapore have managed to get hold of for over a hundred years. In June 1980, there was a record of a 19 m whale carcass, also believed to be a baleen whale, floating off Pulau Bukom, but this was disposed of by sinking it. There was also a rotting 8 m long baleen whale carcass floating in the South China Sea off Pedra Branca recorded in September, 2009, but it was also not recovered and identified to species.

 

2. The famous “Singapore Whale” skeleton of the old Raffles Museum and National Museum of Stamford Road vintage that many older Singaporeans remember is a baleen whale. But this whale, which measured 13 m in length, despite it being etched in the memories of so many Singaporeans, was actually not from Singapore. It was stranded at Malacca in June 1892. It was displayed in the old museum from 1907 to 1974 when it was eventually given away to Muzium Negara in Malaysia. This whale skeleton is now housed in the Maritime Museum on Labuan off Sabah.

 

3. Sperm whales are the largest toothed whales on the planet. In fact, they are the largest carnivorous animals on Earth, with adult males sometimes longer than 20 m and weighing over 50 tonnes. Females are generally smaller at 11-13 m in length and weigh 14-18 tonnes. The whale, of “Moby Dick” fame, dives very deep in its search for food and has been reported to reach depths in excess of 2000 m. It is known to feed on giant squids. They are oceanic animals, and probably use the shallow waters of the Sunda Shelf to transit between the South China Sea, Pacific and Indian Oceans. Sperm whales usually move in small pods of 6-20 animals. In Southeast Asia, sperm whales are still traditionally hunted by villagers on the island of Lembata in Flores, Indonesia.The Sperm Whaleis regarded by IUCN as vulnerable to extinction, and CITES places the species in Appendix I.

 

4. Although there are general accounts and reports that Sperm Whales move along the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea, stranded individuals appear to be rare in the area. Two recent stranding records nearest to Singapore are from Sarawak near Kuching in October 1995, and from Phang Nga in western Thailand in August 2012. The present Singapore specimen is a very important confirmed record of this species for the region.

 

5. The present Singapore specimen probably died a few days before it was discovered. It is estimated to weigh between 8 and 10 tonnes (extrapolated from its length as the specimen could not be directly weighed). When first observed, the specimen had a huge gash along its posterior half that may have been the result of a propeller slash, and this wound was still gushing blood. Whether this terrible wound was sustained after its death or was the reason for its demise is not yet known.

  

 
Photos by: Tammy Lim

 

6. With help from MPA, the floating whale was located off Jurong Island and transported to the Tuas Marine Transfer Station next to the Tuas Incinerator Plant of NEA. It is a secure place to process the specimen as well as allows for easy disposal of the wastes and tissues. It would not have been good if the whale was beached and processed in a public area, which would have presented potential health and logistic problems. The tremendous help provided by MPA and NEA staff was integral in securing the whale specimen for science and the country.

7. Staff members from the museum are now studying the specimen; with tissues collected for future genetic work. Attempts are also being made to see what is in its gut, and trying to ascertain what killed it. It will also be slowly defleshed so that its skeleton can be recovered for the museum. Because we are also examining it carefully as a research specimen and due to its immense size, this will be a slow and massive (not to mention very smelly) exercise.

8. The skeleton, which has been preserved and mounted, is displayed in the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum in NUS. The Singapore Sperm Whale will enthrall a new generation of Singaporeans and residents.

Whaleexhibit
 
The Singapore Sperm Whale exhibit was launched on 14 March 2016. Read more about the launch here.
 
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