Whale beaching: An enduring mystery

The refloating process involves as many as four or five people per whale, attaching slings to the animals so they can be guided out to sea by a boat. Stranded whales on a beach in Macquarie Harbour on the rugged west coast of Tasmania on Tuesday. The
Stranded whales on a beach in Macquarie Harbour on the rugged west coast of Tasmania on Tuesday. The whales have been found stranded up to 10km apart, and officials have now expanded their search area to see if more of the mammals are stuck nearby. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
The refloating process involves as many as four or five people per whale, attaching slings to the animals so they can be guided out to sea by a boat. Stranded whales on a beach in Macquarie Harbour on the rugged west coast of Tasmania on Tuesday. The
The refloating process involves as many as four or five people per whale, attaching slings to the animals so they can be guided out to sea by a boat. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

WHY DO WHALES BEACH THEMSELVES?

It is the question that has puzzled marine biologists for years. Mass whale strandings have occurred throughout recorded modern history, and likely earlier.

"Strandings around the world are complete mysteries," said Sydney-based wildlife scientist Vanessa Pirotta.

While scientists do not know the exact reason, they do know that whales - and dolphins, which are also prone to mass beaching - are very sociable animals. They travel in pods, often following a leader, and are known to gather around injured or distressed whales.

"There are many different factors that can cause a stranding," Australian government marine scientist Kris Carlyon said. "Often it's simple misadventure - one or two or a few animals get themselves into trouble and the rest of the group might follow them in."

Many of the recorded mass strandings include long-finned or short-finned pilot whales.

Whale researcher Olaf Meynecke, from Australia's Griffith University, said pilot whales use sophisticated sonar to find prey and for orientation, so some theories link strandings to changes in electromagnetic fields.

"These changes can be caused by solar storms or earthquakes (seismic activities) but there is also a strong connection between active sonar, e.g. naval sonar, and dolphin strandings including pilot whales," Dr Meynecke said.

HOW ARE THEY RESCUED?

Refloating stranded whales from beaches and sandbanks is a labour-intensive, difficult and often dangerous task.

Several people are needed per whale to try and push them back into deeper water at high tide. Harnesses and stretchers are often used, sometimes to attach a whale to a boat to be dragged out to sea.

 
 

Rescuers try to keep the whales upright to avoid disorientation.

"It's extremely distressing for the whales, a lot like trying to find the door in a dark room while hearing your relatives scream for help," said Dr Meynecke.

The carcasses of those that do not survive are disposed of by being dragged into open sea or buried onshore, both also arduous tasks.

BEACHING EVENTS AROUND THE WORLD

New Zealand and Australia are hot spots for mass whale strandings, thanks to large colonies of pilot whales living in the deep oceans surrounding both island nations.

"They are feeding on squid in the offshore waters in these areas and it is where some of their main food sources occur, supporting many thousand pilot whales," Dr Meynecke said.

The largest mass stranding in modern recorded history involved 1,000 whales on the shores of the Chatham Islands, a New Zealand territory in the Pacific Ocean, in 1918.

Pilot whales are regularly trapped in Farewell Spit, a narrow sand bar that stretches out from the most northern point of New Zealand's South Island into the Tasman Sea for 26km. About 600 pilot whales beached there in February 2017.

In Australia, the most recent mass stranding involved around 150 short-finned pilot whales off the country's western coast in 2018.

Cape Cod in the US state of Massachusetts, a hook-shaped peninsula extending into the Atlantic Ocean, is another global hot spot, with an average of more than 200 stranded whales or dolphins each year.

More than 300 sei whales died in remote waters off Patagonia, Chile, in 2015.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 24, 2020, with the headline 'Whale beaching: An enduring mystery'. Print Edition | Subscribe