NSRI volunteers holding the false killer whale's blowhole above water

Article: Scientific American on why whales beach themselves

Here’s a timely link to a Scientific American article about why certain kinds of whales beach themselves. The article references a mass stranding in 2009, of 55 false killer whales that took place on Noordhoek beach. An interview with a neuroethologist (she studies animal behaviour and how it is controlled by their nervous systems) and expert in marine mammal auditory processes says:

I have to provide the caveat that strandings we know going back to Aristotle, meaning they may be a natural phenomenon. That raises an interesting question: If you have an animal and it is stranded and you insist on returning it to the sea, are you harming the population? If they are sick or diseased, what are we doing to that population pool? I’m not advocating that we don’t rehabilitate animals, if we can. We should understand causes of stranding, but we also have to accept the fact that strandings may be in many cases natural phenomenon.

Wikipedia lists some likely causes of mass strandings. The whale that beached itself at Strandfontein in the third quarter of last year was in extremely poor health, and this was most likely part of its process of dying.

The scene outside Bertha's Restaurant on Sunday
The scene outside Bertha’s Restaurant on Sunday

On Sunday 24 March, a pod of twenty false killer whales beached themselves on Noordhoek beach. (It was originally thought that the whales were pilot whales.) The NSRI and the City of Cape Town as well as teams of veterinarians and other experts (both assisted and obstructed by members of the public) worked with the whales for hours, during which time several died, one swam away, and five were released out of Simon’s Town. One released whale swiftly beached itself outside Bertha’s Restaurant in Simon’s Town around lunchtime yesterday,  where Tony and I caught a glimpse of NSRI members holding it with its nose towards the sea while waiting for assistance. Another three of those whales beached themselves on Long Beach, Simon’s Town, late on Sunday night and had to be euthanased.

NSRI volunteers holding the false killer whale's blowhole above water
NSRI volunteers holding the false killer whale’s blowhole above water

A situation like this is very upsetting for humans, as it is difficult to see otherwise majestic and highly intelligent creatures lying helpless out of their natural element. It is not surprising that emotions ran high at Noordhoek beach on Sunday. Unfortunately these mass strandings – which, the vast majority of the time, are natural events caused by ill-health or magnetic anomalies of the earth’s crust – usually do not end well.

One doesn’t expect children to realise the gravity and probable outcome of a stranding (in fact, I don’t think children should be allowed anywhere near stranded marine mammals – it is far too upsetting and highly unlikely to end the way the Free Willy movie does). Those who work with marine animals and the ocean, however, would (or should) be well aware of how unlikely it is that any significant number of the whales would survive. I think it is unfair to suggest that the City of Cape Town, NSRI, and veterinarians on duty would euthanise the whales as a convenient way out, or because they were tired of trying to save them. In light of this, some of the behaviour at Noordhoek last Sunday was frankly embarrassing. Nan Rice of the Dolphin Action Protection Group delivered a justified slapdown of the parties involved in a letter to the Cape Times published on 26 March.

For a mind-expanding look at why our efforts to assist stranded marine mammals could be completely misguided, I wish you could all listen to Whale Song by Not the Midnight Mass. I’ve been looking for a video or the lyrics since I first heard it performed in concert. If I find it, I’ll share it. It’s both beautiful and thought provoking.

Read the full Scientific American article here.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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