As humpbacks are spotted by whale watchers off the east coast of Australia as part of their annual migration, locals on the New South Wales far south coast discovered a unusually intact skeletal specimen washed ashore.
Merimbula’s Tony ‘Spike’ Hancock stumbled across the whale backbone two weeks ago at Wonboyn Beach, in the Nadgee Nature Reserve, south of Eden.
But it wasn’t the large, snake-like shape of the vertebrae that caught his attention at first.
“When we got onto the beach, we could smell something really putrid,” he said.
“We walked up and had a look.
“The carcass had been stripped and there were huge bones. But the smell was quite a stench.”
Beachgoers warned against touching or removing
The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) said they are aware of the find and are assessing the site and possible removal options, but warned members of the public against touching or removing any part of the skeleton.
“While people are welcome to look, they must not touch [for hygiene reasons] or remove any of the skeleton,” an NPWS spokesperson said in a statement.
“Whales are protected under the Biodiversity Conservation Act and it is illegal to have in your possession any part of a whale under state and federal legislation.
“Non-compliance carries significant penalties.”
Mr Hancock, who has lived on the NSW far south coast for more than four decades, said he had never come across a whale vertebrae of that size before.
“You don’t see that every day,” he said.
“It looks like the sharks have stripped it bare and had a good feed.
“But who knows what happened … just to see something that size just puts it in perspective how big they are.”
A mystery of the sea
Research officer at the Dolphin Research Institute, David Donnelly, said initial examinations of the photos suggested the backbone could possibly be around 10 metres long, and could be associated with seven different whales; humpback, sei, Bryde’s, fin, southern right, sperm, and blue.
“There looks to be plenty of flesh on those bones to grab some tissue samples, and the bones themselves harbour DNA,” he said.
“If the sample is still there and can be retrieved and moved to a museum or a university, I’m sure we’ll be able to get an answer.”
The NPWS confirmed that samples would be taken to confirm the species.
“While likely to be a humpback whale, samples provided in coming months to the Australian Museum will confirm species identification,” a NPWS spokesperson said.
Mr Donnelly said each vertebrae could weigh around 10 kilograms, and the fact it was spotted on land is uncommon.
“You could not lift it manually, put it that way,” he said.
“Seeing something like this, with these large vertebrae from a large animal, without the animal attached, is pretty infrequent.
“When you do have that close contact with something so large, that is of the same class that we are, being mammals, then it becomes quite astounding and starts to put scale in your head.”