A LARGE sperm whale that beached itself at Mahia on Tuesday was malnourished and came ashore to die, Department of Conservation staff say.
The adult male is estimated to be about 60 years old, 15 metres long and weigh at least 50 tonnes.
It came ashore about 7am on Tuesday and died not long after, said conservation officer Malcolm Smith.
Known for their intelligence, the sperm whale has the largest brain of any animal and can live for 70 years or more.
Two 20-tonne diggers, four DoC staff and a handful of volunteers were on the beach yesterday to help bury the whale in trying conditions, which included a strong south-wester, periods of hail and low temperatures.
The diggers would dig a hole “as deep as they can go” to bury the large mammal on the beach above the high-tide mark, said Mr Smith.
This morning, he and DoC field officer Hans Rook were intending to remove the jawbone of the whale. It would take them about four hours.
Mr Rook has removed about 40 whale jawbones but said this was going to be the hardest task yet, due to the rough seas and strong surge.
The jawbone will be given to local iwi. Nothing else will be removed, to show respect to the old animal, said Mr Smith.
A Mahia resident on the beach yesterday said he was just glad “the Japanese didn’t get him”.
Sperm whales can dive more than 1000ft below the surface to eat giant squid. They can stay down for more than an hour and they use sounds to communicate.
They are the largest toothed whale — one tooth can weigh around one kilogram.
Resident Bill Shortt had a close-up look at the whale’s teeth this morning.
It was not uncommon for them, and smaller pygmy sperm whales, to come ashore on the Mahia coastline, he said.
A few years ago, a bigger sperm whale than this one came ashore on the eastern side and there was a smaller one at Te Hoe Bay about four years ago.
In March 2008, during the height of Moko the friendly dolphin’s presence in Mahia, Mr Shortt remembers the stranding of a female pygmy sperm whale and her calf on rocks.
Despite efforts by DoC’s Malcolm Smith and volunteers to nudge the two back out to sea, the whales kept turning and coming back ashore.
“Then the dolphin came from nowhere and escorted them out into deeper water through a channel. It was quite amazing.”
Mr Shortt said there were numerous shore whaling stations at Mahia from 1837 to the early 1880s.
Spermaceti, a wax-like substance in their heads, was used to keep the lights in New York burning, he said.
Other commodities included ambergris, known loosely as “whale vomit”, which is well-known for its use in women’s perfume.
On March 18, 1970 almost 60 sperm whales died when they became stranded on northern Wainui Beach.
A grave 150 metres long, 10 metres wide and 5 metres deep was excavated to bury them.
Twice a year, whales pass New Zealand en route to the Pacific Islands to breed over winter and back to the Antarctic Ocean to feed over the summer season.
DoC attend 85 stranding incidents a year.
Most are said to be solitary animals.