The Orca-stration of Beached Whales

The news in the natural world last week was of 2 large “super-pods” of whales becoming beached in New Zealand. While over 200 pilot whales retook to the sea under their own steam, joining the 100 or so that had already been refloated by conservation volunteers, the remaining beached whales sadly died.

People have often associated the beaching of whales as some sort of apocalypse barometer for modern times, however it has happened throughout history. The largest recorded stranding of pilot whales occurred as far back as 1918, where 1000 whales became stuck on the shore of the Chatham Islands. This was not an isolated episode either; another cited incident from 1946 saw 835 whales washed ashore in Argentina.

Beached whales exist somewhere between pandas and Pixar films for pulling on human emotional reaction, only somewhat more profoundly and with less catchy music. It’s these profound reasons which prompted Melville to choose a whale to be the symbolic nemesis in his tale of Moby Dick; so impossibly and overwhelmingly large, these enigmatic creatures exist in the human conscious as a monolithic leviathan of the deep, immense in solemn meaning. We now understand that whales are not monsters – in a lot of the world’s cultures our human interactions with them have shifted away from fear and the inherent desire to hunt them. Indeed, after the second pod of whales became stranded on New Zealand shores, volunteers formed a human chain in an attempt to stop any more of them from beaching.

The reasons behind these distressing incidents are numerous, with many still to be fully understood. Sometimes it can be due to sickness, with toxic algae and viruses being blamed for causing whales and dolphins to come ashore through delirious impairment. Human activity is also thought to be partially responsible. Factors such as the use of high-intensity sonar, pollution and even climate change are thought to impel whales into grounding themselves. Shallow water can also interfere with the animals’ echolocation, the means by which some whales build a picture of the world around them.

Another theory being floated (ahem) are shark attacks. Continuing a theme we’ve previously touched upon – where the Gryphon took a nostalgic look at the 1999 shark horror-action film Deep Blue Searangers from New Zealand’s department of conservation have found the carcass of a whale containing bite marks made by a large carnivore. Sharks may have been involved; the massive stranding could have been prompted by an attack, driving the pod towards the land and shallow waters.

It certainly has happened before. In 2015 a juvenile humpback whale washed up on rocks in New South Wales, Australia, drawing a crowd of beach-goers who, inevitably, took selfies. A rescue operation was launched, resulting in the eventual return of the Humpback back into the sea. The celebrations were however short lived; the whale was attacked and killed by a large 3.5 metre shark, seemingly waiting for it. Shark attacks are an engaging theory, particularly as it appears peculiar that a species should be so vulnerable through a fault in its echolocation, or any other innate means of navigation, that have been derived through millions of years of natural selection.

Nevertheless, be it sharks, natural disasters, deafening sonar, pollution or illness, the cause of these mass whale beaching remains very much unclear.


Leo Kindred

(Image courtesy of National Geographic)

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