What the Heck?! Vet Discovers Bizarre Cause of Death in Two Pilot Whales

If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if you stuck something in a whale or dolphin’s blowhole, you might be heading straight to your local aquarium’s banned-for-life list. Or, like Lonneke IJsseldijk, you might be a marine animal veterinarian.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Barney Moss

IJsseldijk, a professor in the Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Pathology at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, set out to prove that a pilot whale could choke to death by getting a fish stuck in its blowhole.

As Cetacean Project Coordinator in her department, she had been examining dead whales, dolphins and porpoises for years when in 2014 she came across a pilot whale with a sole caught in its nasal cavity and esophagus.

This was an unusual find for IJsseldijk because cetaceans have a special plug, called a goosebeak, in their throats that usually keeps the paths to their lungs and esophagus separate.

Photo Credit: Image: IJsseldijk et al.

This particular pilot whale must have relaxed the muscles that kept its goosebeak in place and given the sole a last chance at escape. IJsseldijk guessed that the fish made a break for the nasal cavity in an attempt to escape out the blowhole.

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Instead, it got stuck, and both animals died. When she found a second pilot whale with the tail of a sole sticking out its blowhole, her hypothesis had even more proof, and she wrote a paper on her findings for the journal PLOS One.

sole from blowhole of pilot whale
The sole from the nasal cavity of a pilot whale. (Photo Credit: IJsseldijk et al.)

IJsseldijk believes both pilot whales likely died because they didn’t have enough experience hunting sole. Six weeks before the first dead whale washed ashore, a pod was spotted in the North Sea near the U.K. and Belgium, far from their usual habitat. Away from more familiar food, they might have gone for sole without knowing how to swallow it.