So there I was, walking arm in arm with my loved one up and down the deserted beach looking for an even more secluded spot where we could share a moment of privacy when all of sudden out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of something big. It was close to the waterline and being naturally curious, I decided a closer look was in order. And that’s when I saw it. A whale had washed ashore and from the noise it was making it seemed to be in some dire straits. Its tail was flapping up and down and seemed to be in rhythm with the waves and its blowhole sounded something like you’d hear if you were to visit Old Faithful. I looked into its unblinking eyes and saw confusion and panic. It kinda ruined the moment that we were so looking forward to.
Ok, that didn’t really happen but I thought it might make a decent enough segue when the topic comes to beached whales.
Whales are part of the Cetacean species and while there’s a whole boatload of mammals included in that category only ten or so beach themselves with any degree of regularity. The one thing that they have in common is that all of them have teeth. Whales belonging to the baleen family don’t have teeth and there’s never been a recorded beaching of any of them. This remains a mystery.
We’ve probably all seen stories on the news about both individual and mass strandings and even though we think whales do it on purpose that doesn’t necessarily seem to be the case. In fact, individual whales usually die at sea and before they sink to the bottom are carried ashore by the wind and the waves. If an individual whale does strand itself while still alive it’s usually because of some kind of sickness or injury. Mass strandings usually occur when members of the pod try and respond to the distress calls of their fallen comrade and come to their aid. They usually die as a result of dehydration or are crushed by their own body weight.
Beached whales are nothing new. They’ve been stranding themselves throughout history and now scientists are trying to figure out why. Most strandings are within the natural order of things and the theory is that disruptions within the Earth’s magnetic field cause the whales internal GPS to go haywire.
You don’t read about it much (unless of course it creates a tsunami) but did you know that there are thousands and thousands of undersea earthquakes each year? Out of those, approximately 90% just happen to occur along the whales favorite feeding grounds. It’s thought that changes in the water pressure during severe quakes might also induce whales to go with the flow which invariably takes them inland.
There are also some manmade causes for whales beaching themselves. Number one on the list is the use of sonar by the military. To a whale, the sound is deafening and may cause hemorrhaging in and around the ears and in order to escape the racket they go ahead and beach themselves. Research conducted by the United States Navy seems to confirm this since the number of mass strandings goes up after conducting exercises using sonar.
There’s a couple of things you don’t want to do with a whale carcass. The first thing to remember is not to try to and blow it up using dynamite. While I know that sounds pretty stupid it was tried back in 1970 with almost comical results. It seems an 8 ton whale had beached itself and after the ensuing explosion large bits of blubber and carcass rained down from the skies on spectators almost a quarter mile away. While nobody was seriously injured, some cars were destroyed.
Video of the event can be seen here.
The next thing you don’t want to do is try and eat the carcass. It takes a long time for a whale to decay and its corpse is a breeding ground for all kinds of nasty things not intended for human consumption.
I guess the only way to get rid of it in a timely manner is to tow it back out to sea and hope it sinks to the bottom where time and the scavengers that dwell on the ocean floor will do what nature intended.
It’s either that or learn to live with the inevitable stink.