Mystery of dead porpoise washed up on Suffolk beach
PUBLISHED: 16:35 05 February 2019 | UPDATED: 16:56 05 February 2019
One expert believes a hungry seal may be to blame for the fate of a dead porpoise washed up on the banks of the River Orwell.
The body of the porpoise – an aquatic mammal similar to a dolphin – was found on a beach in Nacton, near Ipswich, on Sunday afternoon.
The Felixstowe Coastguard Rescue Team was called to the scene at 4pm, where they took measurements of the animal for the Receiver of Wreck (ROW) – an official who deals with material that has been washed up on UK shores.
The case was then referred to the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP), a project dedicated to determining how and why deceased sea creatures come to be stranded.
A brutal attack?
Rob Deaville, who manages the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) programme, said it was possible the porpoise had been attacked by a grey seal up to five times its size.
Judging by the animal’s injuries, he said it could have been bitten by a bull seal looking for its next meal – but escaped before it was drowned.
The porpoise may then have suffered an infection from the wounds, causing it to deteriorate and eventually wash up on the Suffolk shore.
While this was his “working hypothesis”, Mr Deaville said he would have to look closely at the body before making a proper judgement.
“The pictures do indicate it has been attacked in the past and got away,” he said.
“[There are] bite marks around the tail and I can also see some swelling.
“Seals carry lots of bacteria in their mouths. They can then cause an infection through that bite mark.”
He said there was certainly “no evidence” the cause of death had been man-made.
However the circumstances of the porpoise’s fate will only truly be revealed following a post-mortem examination next week.
‘They take what they can get’
Mr Deaville there isn’t a great deal known about grey seals picking porpoises as their prey – with many tending to stick to fish and smaller mammals.
However recent research and witness sightings have revealed this would not be an isolated incident.
“We have only recently learnt this behaviour is going on,” Mr Deaville said.
“[The seals] take what they can get.”
He added that this incident, while a little gruesome, was “the way the world operates”.
The UK is certainly home to a great deal of grey seals, as 40% of the world’s population live on our shores.
Meanwhile, roughly half of the 800 strandings recorded each year are porpoises.
The body is currently being looked after by a volunteer from the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR), and will be picked up by the CSIP team on Thursday.
A blue-blooded fish?
A spokeswoman for HM Coastguard said they were alerted to the body by a member of the public on Sunday afternoon.
It was found at Nacton, heading towards Felixstowe, between the Leavington car park and Leavington Creek.
“We got the Felixstowe Coastguard Rescue Team down there,” the spokeswoman said.
“They arrived on the scene at about ten to five and took some pictures of it.”
Technically the porpoise belongs to The Queen, as according to English law, whales and sturgeon are ‘royal fish’.
However it is the job of the ROW to take care of any such aquatic life that arrives on English shores.
“It’s a very, very old, ancient rule,” the HM Coastguard spokeswoman added.
“It technically belongs to The Queen. The Receiver of Wreck offers it to The Queen and she says: ‘No, thank you’.”
Royal fish which have washed up dead then tend to be referred to the Natural History Museum, which is the home of CSIP.
Another porpoise was rescued by the Felixstowe team on Saturday, February 2 – just one day previously – but the spokeswoman said there was no way to confirm if the two sightings were linked.