Wednesday, October 16, 2013

An ode to a finless porpoise

The by-caught finless porpoise in Paloh, West Kalimantan (photo: WWF Indonesia)

I have one wish at the moment. I wish I knew the ancient prayers of the Maori in New Zealand or the Native North Americans in the Arctic circles. For I would be able to chant a prayer to a particular finless porpoise who died last Sunday (13/10/13), by-caught by a fisher in Paloh, West Kalimantan. The finless porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides), very likely female and pregnant, was by-caught on Sunday afternoon and was about to be sold to the market when my WWF friends (led by Dwi Suprapti, DVM) intervened and asked the fisher to let the porpoise go. The fisher did, and thus we have our Code 2 carcass for the November stranding workshop in Bali.

Dwi (and her WWF team) and I (and my team) have been on alert for the last few months since I asked her assistance to obtain a Code 2 carcass for the stranding workshop. The alert went to Red level when a few weeks ago Dwi et al. obtained a finless porpoise carcass, also from Paloh. But the carcass was already Code 4, such that it would be ‘a smelly soup inside’ when opened, as my vet friend Nimal told me. Turned out, the Paloh harbour folks also agreed that the animal was already very smelly; they asked us to ditch the carcass from their fridge (er, yes, we did put the carcass for a bit in their refrigerator...). So, no carcass to examine. Not that I was sad about it, I had no intention in examining a Code 4 carcass either...

I may have to step back a bit and explain the Carcass Coding 101. Based on Geraci & Lounsbury (1993), stranded marine mammals are usually grouped into five based on their condition. Code 1 is for live stranders (be it lost in the shallow water or already beached). Code 2 is for fresh dead; really fresh, not smelly, no bloats, the skin colour still glows and looks fresh as in the picture above. Code 3 is for when the decomposition already starts. It starts to smell, gas starts to form inside the body. Code 4 is for advance decomposition.  Not only it’s terribly smelly and bloaty, the skin already peels off too. In short, yucky.  Code 5 is the last code for any stranders that are already mummified or turned into skeletons. 

This is a perfect example of Code 2 carcass (photo: WWF Indonesia)

These codes are important to understand because of practical and scientific matters. You don’t want to send 1st responders to handle a Code 2. You want a group of vets or marine biologists to secure that Code 2 immediately and get them to analyse possible cause of death. When you find a Code 3 or 4 instead, consult your trained wildlife vet. If the location is remote, it’s very likely that you won’t have the vet team coming (particularly for Code 4). Just get the genetic samples and find a way to dispose of the carcass safely for health reasons (burying them is a good idea; you can use the skeleton for educational or research purposes later). 

The Paloh Code 4 (also a finless porpoise) found at the end of Sept'13 (photo: WWF Indonesia)

But, coming back to the finless porpoise currently stored in Paloh refrigerator (and God, I hope it’s still Code 2 when Dwi arrives there tomorrow afternoon from Pontianak with an electric mobile freezer), it wasn’t just a carcass, was it? It was alive and well a few hours before I received news from Dwi. It was... as if it was sacrificing itself for me and my team, so that we could do our necropsy demo in November. 

Yes, it’s illogical, but there are things outside logic. True, the probability of obtaining a finless porpoise carcass is pretty high for this month, since it’s their season in Paloh. But the likelihood of getting a Code 2 just in time for immediate storage? That’s really small. Plus, the fisher was willing to give his catch, which might have destroyed his fishing net, instead of selling it to the market. As all cetaceans in Indonesia, finless porpoise is protected by the national law (Government Regulation 7/1999). The fisher was not supposed to sell his catch anyway, for it is against the law. But he could, if he wanted to. He did not. Granted, we will give him some money as a compensation for his net, but really, it’s not going to be a price tag. The fisher was willing to cooperate, the finless porpoise was – the last time we checked – still in Code 2, Dwi is coming tomorrow with a brand new 1.5 m mobile freezer to store the porpoise until it is ready to ship... It’s not a wonder that I consider this a miracle. 

This event won’t be a miracle in the North Sea or Europe, where they can easily find so many stranders or by-catch cetaceans. Nimal went to a veterinary workshop for stranded marine mammals last July in Liege, Belgium. They had 20 vets there, and each of them had the ‘luxury’ of one carcass each (Code 2 when obtained, immediately frozen). Friends in Hong Kong, the Philippines, Thailand and (particularly) Taiwan seem to have very little problem in obtaining Code 2 carcasses for necropsy demo. But us in Indonesia? The distance from one place to another is so far away. Dwi needs to travel at least 8 hours from Pontianak to Paloh; perhaps 12 hours with lunch etc. From Pontianak to Denpasar Bali, the carcass needs to be shipped with the fastest and safest method (usually coming at a price). We are still discussing whether we will use air cargo (via Jakarta, hence a possible 8-10 hours without freezer) or sea cargo (will take longer, but the carcass may be shipped inside the mobile freezer). Then there is paperwork we need to prepare before the carcass can be shipped; any delays due to incomplete paperwork will just deteriorate the carcass condition. 

It will take more efforts, money and faith (yes, faith) to ship the carcass safely, such that it still arrives as Code 2 in our lab in Denpasar. The journey has not ended at all; it’s just starting.

But it won’t even begin without the finless porpoise, possibly a mother, swimming into the net of a Paloh fisherman last Sunday afternoon. For that, for sacrificing herself and her baby (voluntarily or not) so that we can learn more, I’d like to thank her and the Universe. And I am again wishing that I know a better way to compose an ode than just this blog post. But I do not. Hence, this post.


See Jefferson & Wang (2011) for detailed descriptions of the difference between the Indo-Pacific finless porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides) and the Narrow-ridged finless porpoise (Neophocaena asiaeorientalis).


Geraci, J. R. & Lounsbury, V. J. 1993, Marine Mammals Ashore: A Field Fuide for Strandings, Texas A&M University Sea Grant College Program, Texas.

Jefferson, T. A. & Wang, J. Y. 2011, 'Revision of the taxonomy of finless porpoise (genus Neophocaena): The existence of two species', Journal of Marine Animals and Their Ecology, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 3-16.

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