Sunday,19 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1397, (7 - 20 June 2018)
Sunday,19 May, 2019
Issue 1397, (7 - 20 June 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Unexpected sighting

A pygmy blue whale has been seen in the Red Sea for the first time, reports Mahmoud Bakr


Unexpected sighting
Unexpected sighting

Environment Minister Khaled Fahmi has deployed monitoring teams from the Red Sea and South Sinai nature reserves to track a pigmy blue whale which was sighted off the Gulf of Aqaba. The pygmy blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda) is a subspecies of the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) and is usually found in the Indian and south Pacific oceans.

The Environment Ministry says the unusual visitor measures 24 metres. Regular blue whales can grow up to 30 metres. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists all blue whales as endangered.

Pygmy blue whales follow regular migration routes, heading towards cooler waters in the summer to feed and warmer waters in the winter to breed. One theory is the pygmy blue whale spotted off the Gulf of Aqaba lost its way to the north and veered off course, confused perhaps by the tropical cyclone Mekunu which hit Oman and may have trapped the beast in the shallow waters of the Red Sea.

The mammal will have entered the Red Sea from the Indian Ocean, says Ahmed Ghalab, head of the Red Sea Nature Reserve. In cases where dolphins have been stranded they can be carried aboard boats to safer waters but returning the whale to safer waters will be more difficult given its size precludes it being carried by boat.

There have been four sightings of the whale in the last week, says Mohamed Qotb, head of the South Sinai Nature Reserve. The last was in Dahab.

“It is difficult to track the creature. We have 240 square kilometres to monitor and the whale dives for 40 to 50 minutes before emerging briefly to breathe then disappears again.”

“The blue whale is toothless and poses no threat to people but it is advisable to keep a distance,” adds Qotb.

The mammal may well have returned to the Indian Ocean, believes Ghalab. The Red Sea is too warm for blue whales and food stocks are poor.

Blue whales gained worldwide protection in 1996. In 2000 blue whales numbered between 5,000 and 12,000. More recent IUCN estimates put the figure at between 10,000 and 25,000 maximum.

Blue whales often travel alone, in which case their speed reaches 20 kilometres an hour, or in small groups, at speeds that can exceed 50 kilometres per hour.

They feed on krill (small crustaceans) and have no enemies in the ocean save for some recorded attacks by killer whales. The blue whale can, however, be injured or killed in collisions with ships and the recovery in its numbers is threatened by water pollution and overfishing. Climate change is another danger faced by the whales.

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