200 Beached Whales & Dolphins Reports

Reports from The Times

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Conservationists are demanding an immediate and thorough inquiry into what they say is the suspicious stranding of 200 whales and dolphins.

Fears that the mass stranding on an Australian beach on Sunday was caused by human disturbance were raised because two species of cetacean came ashore simultaneously.

Most of the animals were pilot whales, but a number of bottlenose dolphins were also among the pod.

Residents joined wildlife workers to spend hours keeping the surviving animals wet and cool before they could be lifted, pushed and hauled back into the water.

The rescue operation succeeded in saving 54 pilot whales and five dolphins on Naracoopa Beach on King Island, Tasmania. Most of the beached animals were dead by the time anyone could reach them.

Wildlife workers and volunteers were delighted to have saved more than a quarter of the whales and dolphins, but they were maintaining a watch on beaches in the area for fear that some of the creatures might come ashore again during the next high tides. Officials of the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service were trying to discover last night why 192 whales and seven dolphins had beached themselves but said that the stranding, like many others before, was likely to remain a mystery.

Mark Simmonds, of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and an expert on cetacean strandings, said that two species coming ashore together was enough to arouse suspicions of a human factor, including the use of sonar by the military.

“To get more than one species is unusual,” he said. “When you do, you get more suspicious because it means that they might have been driven. It does make us worried. We are certainly going to call for a very thorough investigation.”

Military sonar has been strongly linked to several strandings, particularly of deep-diving species such as pilot whales. Other human noises that could have frightened or disorientated the animals include industrial activities.

Another prime suspect among the possible causes is climate change, which scientists fear may be causing whales and dolphins to get close to unfamiliar coastlines.

Several species have migrations that take them close to the Tasmanian shore – 80 per cent of Australian strandings take place in Tasmania – and changes in water temperature caused by climate change could be driving them off their usual routes.

However, Dr Simmonds accepted that an explanation for the stranding could equally well be natural, such as the marine animals making a simple navigational error.

Factors leading to natural strandings are little understood but researchers believe that they are likely to be linked to group behaviour.

“Pilot whales are one of those species that do tend to feature in mass strandings, which is probably because they are a very social species,” Dr Simmonds said. “Out at sea there’s nowhere to hide but behind each other, so when one gets into trouble the others follow.”

It is the fourth time in the past few months that a large stranding has taken place on Tasmania’s coast. Chris Arthur, of the Parks and Wildlife Service, said: “This last summer has been a particularly demanding one.”

Ninety-seven animals of two species – long-finned whales and bottlenose dolphins – were stranded in November 2004 on King Island. 

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The human equivalent of a whale becoming stranded on a beach is being stuck in hot quicksand. Unable to escape, you begin crying for help. Like humans, most whales are social, and when there’s trouble they group together. Family and friends come running, only to find themselves stuck too.

Why, though, would the whales end up beached in the first place? They are masters of the marine environment. They navigate their way by reading the shifting three-dimensional landscape of ocean currents and fronts between varying temperatures and salinities. There is a clue in that coastal species rarely get stuck. Might they lose their way owing to shifting signposts in the sea? It’s too early to say, but when two or more different species wash up on the same beach, both must have made the same mistake.

Perhaps they were not lost but running away. The only significant predators of whales are humans and orcas, or killer whales. Some suggest that the sweep of military sonar resembles the homing “shriek” of a killer whale’s echo location while it is hunting. Beached whales could just as well be fleeing a loud noise. Some sonars operate at 240 decibels. The fright, not the power of the sound, appears to be to blame.

Whales that become stranded come towards the beach at speed, perhaps in panic. If the tide is falling they will be left high and dry, and that’s where the trouble starts. Whales are not engineered for lying unsupported on a beach. Their enormous mass must be supported by water, and their blubber causes them to overheat when out of the cold sea.

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 Whales are the wet, sad teddies of the sea

We have a curious attitude to the monsters of the deep.

It’s a rum business, dealing with monsters. In one bit of Australia human beings are tenderly helping stranded whales back into the sea. Just a few miles away – anyway, as these things go in Australia – sharks are tenderly helping themselves to human beings with unprecedented frequency.

That’s the wild for you. In one aspect, it is pitiful, delicate and helpless and people long to give it the best care they possibly can. In another aspect, it frightens the bejesus out of us. Both aspects are inescapable; both aspects are an essential part of our love for wild things: essential parts of being human.

The whales have been stranded on King Island, between Tasmania and the mainland; 194 pilot whales, small enough by whale standards but still hefty enough. Of these, at least 140 are dead, 15 have been towed back to sea and others gently succoured with wet blankets and sluicings.

Meanwhile, there have been three shark attacks on humans around Sydney in the last month, one in Sydney Harbour itself, which is almost like a shark attack in the Serpentine.

Nice of Australia to give us this elegant paradox, this intriguing parable about the place of the wild world in the 21st century. We love it, we fear it: and are happy for love and fear to be hopelessly confused. We find this contradiction uplifting, stimulating, exciting.

Whales have, for the past generation, become living, breathing symbols of the fragility of the Earth and the bullying tendencies of its most dominant animal. Whales, with their intelligence, their songs and their vulnerability, stand for all the bad things humans have done to the Earth. No wonder there are people out there doing all they can to help the poor buggers that got stranded.

Whales are benign, the wet, sad, giant teddies of the sea. Sharks, for far longer, have played the opposite role. They are the most feared of all creatures, not because they are the most dangerous but because they strike out at us from a world we cannot comprehend, a world we can enter only as trespassers.

Sharks embody every irrational fear that humans can command: the dread that the whole world is out to get us for reasons we cannot begin to come to terms with.

And, yet, the most fearsome animals are the ones we most cherish. The tiger is regarded as a thing of beauty: the idea of killing them all off because they are a bit fierce is anathema. We want to keep them because they are a bit fierce.

Both its ferocity and its fragility make the wild world essential to us. But this is a world that gets less fierce and more fragile with every passing day.

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