The Sad Phenomenon of Whale Beaching

The Sad Phenomenon of Whale Beaching

Few people can be unaffected by the sight of whales stranded (beached) on the shore or in shallow water, unable to return to the deeper sea. The plight of a group, or pod, of beached whales often makes headline news around the world.

What is Beaching?

Handout photo issued by the Scottish Government of stranded whales off the Isle of Skye. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo.

For many different reasons, whales sometimes swim into very shallow waters, from where they are physically unable to refloat and return to deeper water. Beached whales often die from dehydration, or actually drown when the high tide waters cover their blowholes and they cannot breathe air. Sometimes, the weight of a whale’s body can cause damage to its internal organs.

This is not a new phenomenon: it has been referenced in art work and in oral sagas such as the Icelandic Grettir’s Saga. The earliest evidence of mass whale beaching was found in 2010, during excavations preparing for road building between Alaska and Argentina. Some studies suggest that beaching of whales is becoming more common, though it is uncertain whether this is partly down to more frequent recording. It is difficult to put exact numbers on the frequency, but as an example of the scale, on February 2017 over 400 pilot whales were stranded in New Zealand.

Why do Whales Become Beached?

There are many reasons for this, and no one definitive answer. Theories cover both natural causes and human activity as contributory factors.

  • When a whale is injured, ill, or simply old, it may head for shallower waters to rest, or it may be too weak to resist currents that push it inshore. The others in the pod may unwittingly follow. It is also possible that the social caring behaviour of whales may lead them to stay with their threatened companion, even though this means danger for the rest of the pod. This could partly explain the mass beaching of healthy whales.
  • Man-made sonar can interfere with the echolocation skills of whales, disorientating them and causing them to stray into shallow waters. The engines of large ships can injure whales.
  • Climate change may play a part; the melting of icebergs and changes in the tides and water flow may lead them into unknown regions and shallow waters in search of food or on their migration paths.
  • Red tides are when the sea becomes full of red algae, which colours the water. The quantity of these microorganisms can be increased to a level toxic to whales and other sea life, by nutrients from sewage and fertilizer being released into the sea.

Rescuing Beached Whales

The first action should be to inform an expert welfare organisation as quickly as possible, as they will have the correct strategies for action. Most countries have rescue networks or organisations such as the RSPCA (in the UK). The WDC offers advice on steps to take while waiting for expert help to arrive.

The sight of whales stranded is heart wrenching, and it is common for many people to come to the shore and offer help. Experts coordinate rescue efforts and make sure the right kind of action is taken to keep the whales alive until the tide is high enough to try to refloat them. Although many whales are not saved, a fair number are.

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