Imagine sailing through the cerulean waters near the Phi Phi Islands in Thailand’s Krabi province when you glimpse a majestic creature gliding beneath the waves. This isn’t your average whale sighting; this is the elusive white Omura’s whale, a marine marvel so rare that spotting one is akin to finding a needle in a colossal, oceanic haystack. The odds? A staggering one in 10 million.
Marine aficionado Thon Thamrongnawasawat has stirred up waves with his declaration that a whale of snowy splendour, recently spotted by a sharp-eyed tourist, could very well be the first recorded sighting in the region.
As The Nation plunges into the aquatic world of this enigmatic cetacean, we invite you to dive deep with us. Together, we’ll swim through the waters of wisdom to understand the Omura’s whims and whereabouts. Tread gently though, for the waters are murky with mystery around this beguiling creature.
Under its scientific epithet, Balaenoptera omurai, christened in honor of the venerable Japanese cetologist Hideo Omura, the Omura’s whale once masqueraded as a smaller kin to Bryde’s whales. Skeptics believed it was simply a petite prototype or a miniature mimic. Yet, science has a wondrous way of unveiling truths; it turns out, after further investigation, that this marine enigma branched out much earlier from the rorqual family tree, sharing perhaps a more kindred bond with its colossal cousin, the Blue whale.
Adult Omura’s whales measure a noteworthy 10 to 11.5 metres stem to stern, tipping marine scales at approximately 20 tons. These ocean wanderers frequently grace coastal areas with their presence. Strangely, our knowledge of these creatures mainly stems from a carcass discovered in 2003—an unfortunate event, yet invaluable for research.
While Omura’s whales do share a family resemblance with the Bryde’s, they boast distinctive traits. Their dorsal fins form graceful arcs and sit snugger to their flukes. Upon their noble crowns, you’ll find a singular ridge—a stark contrast to the Bryde’s trio of ridges.
The diet of an Omura’s whale isn’t unlike a health-conscious human’s preference for sushi—small fish and krill sit at the top of their culinary chart. Basking in the splendour of warm, tropical climates, these leviathans frolic in both coastal and deeper offshore waters, with postcard sightings reported from the eastern Indian Ocean to the western reaches of the Pacific.
In the Land of Smiles, Thailand, whispers among the waves speak of an estimated 15 Omura’s whales between the Andaman Sea’s azure embrace and the Gulf of Thailand’s gentle hold, stretching from Prachuap Khiri Khan all the way to Songkhla.
What truly sets these sea-bound giants apart from other whale species is their baleen—a miraculous filter feeding system within their gaping maws. Composed of a series of keratin plates, they elegantly sift through seawater to seize their scrumptious meals.
The astute minds at the National Science Museum have shared a little secret with us—the humble baleen whales, including both the Omura’s and Bryde’s, play a pivotal role in the marine food chain. Their nitrogen-rich waste is the stuff of legends, or rather, the feast of sea plankton, those tiny organisms that form the bedrock of the oceanic food web.
At present, the International Union for Conservation of Nature keeps the status of Omura’s whales enshrouded in the “data deficient” category, a term that echoes the profound silences of the deep in providing concrete conclusions about their conservation status. Nevertheless, these gentle giants are safeguarded by the watchful gaze of the 2019 Wild Animal Conservation and Protection Act, promising them safe passage through Thailand’s waters.
So, the next time you set sail on the marine mosaic of the Phi Phi Islands, keep your eyes peeled for that fleeting glimpse of white. Who knows, you just might join the exclusive club of fortunate mariners who’ve witnessed the spectral splendour of the Omura’s whale.