The tragic death of the stranded sperm whale attracted hundreds of people to Redcar, desperate for a view of the magnificent creature. Graeme Hetherington reports.

IT was a sad sight. The lifeless body of a once magnificent leviathan of the deep, so graceful in its natural environment, lying helpless on the sand.

Yesterday, its death created a great deal of interest, with hundreds of people coming to Redcar to have a look at the creature.

A police cordon was put in place to keep spectators at a safe distance, as rescuers struggled in vain to save the whale.

Maureen Bates, who was on the beach with her eight-yearold daughter, Megan, said: “We just wanted to come down and have a look for ourselves because it is probably the closest we are ever going to get to a whale in the sea.”

Trevor Atkinson said: “I came down to take photographs of the whale and couldn’t believe how big it was.

It’s very sad that it died but there was probably nothing that could have been done anyway.”

Brenda Henderson, from Durham, said: “It’s sad that the whale died but this was a oncein- a-lifetime opportunity and I felt I needed to come and have a look for myself.”

Experts now face the difficult task of disposing of the body as humanely and safely as possible.

The 44ft whale is believed to have become lost as it made its way from the frozen North towards the North Atlantic.

Any whales that are stranded around the UK’s coastline become the property of the Queen through the Receiver of Wreck, which is part of the Coastguard Agency.

However, the carcasses are usually cut up into manageable sizes and taken to a specialist processing plant – in this case to one in Tow Law, County Durham.

Richard Ilderton, a volunteer for the British Divers Marine Life Rescue, said: “While we have whales in the North Sea, it is not a suitable environment for a sperm whale because the food supply is not there.

“It doesn’t eat, it becomes malnourished, it becomes dehydrated because whales do not drink – they get their liquid from their food. It can cause all sorts of health problems and ultimately results in something like this happening.

“We have taken samples from the body and staff from the Zoological Society in London are going to carry out a post-mortem on the whale before it will be cut down into smaller pieces and removed from the beach.

“We have to cut the whale up to prevent it becoming an environmental problem, we are unable to bury it because it could become a health hazard.

“Towing back out to sea is not an option because it could pose a hazard in a busy seaway and blowing up it is no longer really an option because of the mess it makes.”

The attempt to pull the 20- tonne whale to drier sand using a digger was hampered by the incoming tide.

The team behind the operation was forced to chain it to the sea wall to prevent it floating out to sea. Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council took responsibility for the disposal of the huge carcass.

The whale remained on the beach overnight, watched by security guards, before a postmortem examination due to be carried out by zoologists this morning.

Councillor Steve Goldswain, the cabinet member for community safety, praised the hard work of everyone involved in the task.

The council worked alongside the RNLI, the Zoological Society of London, Cleveland Fire Brigade, Cleveland Police, the Coastguard, Carillion, the Buckler demolition firm and the British Divers Marine Life Rescue charity.

He said: “This has been an extremely lengthy and complicated operation, with both the welfare of the stranded whale and the safety of the hundreds of onlookers needing to be taken into account.

“We are extremely grateful for the expertise, professionalism and support of all the agencies which came together in such trying circumstances.”

Sperm whales – the facts

• The sperm whale is the largest toothed animal in the world, with adult bull males measuring up to 20.5 metres long and weighing up to 57,000kg.

• The brain of the sperm whale is the largest of any animal that has ever lived, weighing in at up to 18lb.

• The sperm whale can descend to more than 1,000 metres, making it the deepest diving of any of the great whales. It can stay submerged for more than an hour.

• Sperm whales are protected under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The primary reason for the species’ decline was commercial whaling.

• The sperm whale gets its name from spermaceti, the wax present in its head cavities and originally mistaken for sperm. It was used in cosmetics, leatherworking and lubricants.

• A substance called ambergris, produced in the digestive system of sperm whales, was prized for centuries for use in perfumes and as an aphrodisiac. It is thought to be formed by squid beaks irritating the stomach lining.

• Sperm whales eat about three per cent of their body weight every day. Their diet mainly consist of squid, octopus and other fish.

• Female sperm whales are extremely social, staying in pods of about a dozen individuals and their young. Males leave these schools at a young age and tend to disperse into smaller groups, eventually living solitary lives.

• Moby Dick, widely considered a literary masterpiece, tells the story of Captain Ahab’s obsessive quest for revenge against a ferocious white sperm whale that bit off his leg.

• Fights between sperm whales and giant squid may not be confined to movies and the imaginations of Victorian whalers. Scientists have evidence that battles between them actually take place. Sperm whales often have circular scars that match the giant squid suckers and body parts have been found in their stomachs.