Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. XIV No. 1 - January 2005

Cetacean Strandings

Cetacean strandings always get attention, but recent events and a new resource deserve particular mention. Every stranding is unique, from 77 ton right whales to the five foot long porpoises, from a long dead dolphin well above the tide line to 50 suffering sperm whales rolling in the surf, from people who just see something to eat to those who literally endanger their lives to try to save a doomed animal. These events can provoke the weirdest theories, humble anyone, and bring out the best humans have to offer.

The Virginian-Pilot newspaper in December published a series of timely and excellent articles by Diane Tennant. Thanks to the Internet this extremely detailed and well-researched series remains available around the world, from the "Special Reports" link at http://www.pilotonline.com/. While focused on US experiences, the series includes so many topical and significant issues, with such clarity and accuracy, that no reader could turn away unimpressed. If it's thorough enough to leave readers feeling overwhelmed, then perhaps it brings home the burden shared by all who work on strandings; everyone has been overwhelmed at times, on several levels. Many of the experts quoted work at sacrificial levels, leaving family events with a moment's notice to walk long, desolate beaches and work long hours under difficult conditions.

Poco, the wandering beluga, was found dead on a South Portland, ME, beach in mid- November. Experts determined that the three to five year old whale most likely died naturally, from a lung infection. His legacy adds to both the mystery and the reality of "solitary social" cetaceans, but hasn't brought us much closer to knowing what's best for these generally young creatures, or even how to keep their brief but intense relationships with people benign for all concerned.

Tasmania experienced several mass strandings beginning in November. At Maria Island rescuers saved perhaps 34 pilot whales, but 53 died on an ebb tide. Others, mixed with dolphins, were kept from shore despite the weather. A second event within a day, but on the opposite end of Tasmania, included whales and dolphins stranding on King Island in Bass Strait, with 98 known deaths.

Scientists had predicted that there would be more mass strandings, because predominant westerly winds over the Southern Ocean were increasing strength on a 10 year cycle. The winds were predicted to bring in cold, nutrient-rich water, and more fish closer to Tasmania, with cetaceans in pursuit. University of Tasmania Professor Hindell and Dr. Karen Evans discovered the link between the weather patterns and increased numbers of whales closer to Tasmania while researching 300 strandings in the region over the past 80 years. They predicted that this increase in strandings might persist over a year.

19 sperm whales became stranded in rough weather on Tasmania's west coast in late December. The majority had died before rescue efforts were assembled, and the surf made any effort dangerous. The weather even prevented flights to the area. The whales were estimated to range in size from seven to 14 meters in length, which may suggest that it was a group of females and juveniles, perhaps more likely to try to help initially grounded group members than "bachelor" groups of same-sized and aged sperm whales. Whether more whales remained offshore was not reported.

Three days before a magnitude 8.1 earthquake was reported about 500 miles southeast of Tasmania, followed the day before, 26 December, by the 9.0 earthquake at the intersection of the Australian tectonic plate and the Indian tectonic plate that caused such mind numbing destruction.

And then there was Dr. Arunachalam Kumar's prediction of the tsunami in Asia ...

In early December he posted the following message to a Natural History list pertaining to India: "It is my observation, confirmed over the years, that mass suicides of whales and dolphins that occur sporadically all over the world, are in someway related to change and disturbances in the electromagnetic field coordinates and possible realignments of geotectonic plates thereof. Tracking the dates and plotting the locales of tremors and earthquakes, I am reasonably certain, that major earthquakes usually follow within a week or two of mass beaching of cetaceans. I have noted with alarm, the last week report of such mass deaths of marine mammals in an Australian beachside. I will not be surprised if within a few days a massive hit hits some part of the globe. The interrelationship between the unusual `death-wish' of pods of whales and its inevitable aftermath, the earthquake, may need a further impassioned and unbiased looking into."

While Dr. Kumar's timing was unbeatable, and ignoring his unlikely assumptions about suicide and "death wish" as motives for the strandings, and "electromagnetic field coordinates" as well, what is known about precursory signals to earthquakes that might be sensed by marine organisms? There is ample evidence that terrestrial vertebrates sense low frequency signals well before a quake, and that underwater earthquakes produce powerful noises, but does anyone really know enough to be certain that cetaceans would not be made aware of an impending quake, or suffer the aftermath?

Two orcas became stranded in late November on the low tide near Taiharuru estuary, northeast of Whangarei, New Zealand. Double Dent, a 30 year old female, was grounded while her young calf remained afloat near her. After two hours the tide allowed her to free herself, and the pair left with the six other orcas that had been waiting close by in 1-3 meters of water. Rudie, the 22 year old son of Double Dent, became free two hours later, and caught up with his pod before they got to Tutukaka Harbor. The next day they were hunting stingrays in the Bay of Islands. This pod is well known to Dr. Ingrid Visser, who for a while stood next to the stranded orcas while onlookers gathered. Just what was the significance of the quiet whistles Rudie was making as Dr. Visser stood near, and touched him? For more information on New Zealand's orcas and other cetaceans see the Orca Research Trust web site, http://www.orcaresearch.org/.

Dr. Ingrid Visser next to Rudie.

Dr. Ingrid Visser next to Rudie.
The Northern Advocate, 26 Nov 2004

Humans probably don't witness most of the temporary strandings, as cetaceans travel or hunt in particularly shallow water and get grounded on a falling tide. Many shorelines have gentle sloping flats, where a neap tide means a foot of water a mile from land, followed in six hours by ten feet of water over the same spot. TurnAgain, Alaska is famous for trapping cetaceans, with a tidal change so dangerous that authorities will not allow rescues. The orcas just wait it out. As soon as the weather and tide allow, the trapped whales or dolphins generally swim away. But a hot sun, freezing temperatures, marauding animals, and even exploitative humans can make the event a tragic mistake. Readers will recall that Kshamenk, an orca on display at Mundo Marino in Argentina, remains at the center of a controversy over whether he and other orcas were captured illegally, by preventing them from leaving a large and shallow bay until grounded in mud.

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