Monday July 22, 2024

First sighting of sperm whales reported in Pakistani waters

By M Waqar Bhatti
September 13, 2017

A group of Pakistani fishermen while fishing in the Gunz area of Jiwani this week claimed to have spotted a pair of sperm whales, which have never been seen or reported live in Pakistani waters, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Pakistan said on Tuesday.

“While fishing about 22 kilometres south of Gunz, near Jiwani, Captain Mehar Gul spotted two spouts of whales on Sunday, 10 September. Looking at the animals, fisherman became very curious and immediately followed them.  Eventually, the whales turned out to be a pair of sperm whales, which had never been reported live from Pakistani waters. The fishermen followed these whales for about one and half hours after which the two whales took a deep dive and disappeared into the sea,” said a spokesman for the WWF-Pakistan.

In December 2005, the skeleton of a sperm whale was reported from Sonara Beach near Karachi, and a few of bones of another specimen were collected from Daran Beach near Jiwani.

Sperm whales, scientifically known as Physeter macrocephalus, can be easily recognised by their massive heads and prominent rounded foreheads. It is a cosmopolitan species, which is globally found in all major oceans.

These whales are considered the largest predator on earth and feed on a variety of fishes and invertebrates. However, 80 percent of their diet consists of large squids. Sperm whales have the largest brain of any creature known to have lived on earth.

Sperm whale heads also hold large quantities of substance called spermaceti. Whalers once believed that the oily fluid was sperm, but scientists still do not understand the function of spermaceti. One common theory is that the fluid — which hardens to wax when cold — helps the whale alter its buoyancy so that it can dive deep and rise again. Sperm whales are known to dive as deep as 3,280 feet in search of squid. These giant mammals can hold their breath for up to 90 minutes on such dives.

The WWF-Pakistan has trained more than 100 fishermen (mainly skippers) to collect information about fish catch as well as bycatch, especially of megafauna (whales, dolphins, whale sharks and mobulids rays). Fishermen are also trained to safely release rare marine species that are incidentally entangled in their fishing nets and also to collect information about free swimming whales and dolphins.

During post-monsoon months last year, from August to December 2016, the WWF-Pakistan trained fishermen sighted an unprecedented number of baleen whales from Pakistan’s coast. A total of 47 sightings of baleen whales, including 12 confirmed sightings of Arabian humpback whales and three sightings of Bryde’s whales, were recorded. However, the present sighting of sperm whales is first ever live record of specimen in Pakistani waters.

According to Muhammad Moazzam Khan, technical adviser (Marine Fisheries), the WWF-Pakistan, the Arabian Sea is known to have a large population of oceanic squids, including purpleback flying squids and rhomboid squids; therefore, it was likely that the sperm whale could also dwell in the Arabian Sea, as 80 percent of its diet consists of large pelagic squids.

He appreciated the efforts of Captain Mehar Gul, who followed the two sperm whales and recorded them on camera. “The dive pattern and terminal blow confirms that the two whales are adults as their size exceeds 10 metres,” he added.

Dr Babar Khan, regional head of Sindh and Balochistan, WWF-Pakistan, lauded the efforts of fishermen in reporting the first live record of sperm whales in Pakistani waters and considered the sighting an important addition to the knowledge of biodiversity of the Arabian Sea. 

He said a total of 23 species of cetaceans (whale, dolphin and porpoises) are known to occur in Pakistani waters. This sighting of sperm whales indicates the rich diversity of marine life along the coast of Pakistan.

Khan also emphasised the need to implement a Cetacean Conservation Strategy, which was developed by the WWF-Pakistan and other stakeholders in 2013 and aimed to protect whales and other cetaceans in Pakistani waters.