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Whale-sized interest in giant mammal on beach

23rd April 2003


The Daily News

Ginko-toothed beaked whale {Mesoplodon ginkgodens}
Photo courtesy CETACEA

A whale of mystery found dead on a Taranaki beach has the world of marine science excited.

The rare ginkgo-toothed whale was found at an Onaero beach and is one of the most important mammal marine finds in recent history, according to Department of Conservation (DOC) programme manager Bryan Williams.

The almost-two-tonne whale is the first of its species to wash up on New Zealand shores, the third in the Southern Hemisphere and just the 20th in the world.

The discovery was made by Pam and John Rochester, of the Onaero Bay Motor Camp.

"We've never seen a beached whale before, plenty of seals though, so it was a bit of a fluke for it to turn up on our coastline," Mr Rochester said.

The April 9 find had already attracted interest from scientists in Australia, United States and Japan.

"There are about 29 species of whale and out of all of them, almost nothing is known about the ginkgo-toothed species," Mr Williams said.

"It's unfortunate the whale washed up dead, but it's probably the most exciting thing that has happened in the scientific world of mammal marine science for some time," he said.

Much information was expected to be derived from the specimen, thought to have died from natural causes, compared with others which were found decomposed.

Following approval by Ngati Mutunga, the female whale, measuring 4.8 metres long, was transported by DOC to Massey University in Palmerston North where its internal organs were being used for research purposes.

Its skeleton was being stored at Te Papa museum in Wellington.

"It's an extraordinary find and is something completely unknown to our waters," the museum's collection manager of marine mammals, Anton van Helden, said.

While New Zealand shores, particularly those of Nelson, Marlborough and the East Coast, were no stranger to whale strandings, Mr Williams said it was rare in Taranaki because the coast here was not shallow.

Ginkgo-toothed whales were known to live in warm deep waters, especially in the Northern Hemisphere, but with the warm temperatures recently recorded in the Tasman it was no surprise one was found here, Mr Williams said.

The species was first recorded in Japanese waters in 1958 and gets its name from the oriental ginkgo tree.