Why do whales beach themselves?



beached whale

Credit: NASA

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It was a scene akin to a war zone. Hundreds of bodies scattered in the surf as the sun rose above the postcard-perfect coastline. Some showed little signs of life, while others cried out for help.

This was the distressing sight for residents of King Island in Tasmania who woke earlier this month to find more than 200 whales and a few dolphins stranded on Naracoopa Beach.

"When we arrived at noon there were 54 pilot whales still alive and five bottle nose dolphins," said Chris Arthur, the Incident Commander at Parks and Wildlife Tasmania.

Arthur has overseen the rescue efforts of four of the mass strandings that have occurred in Tasmania this summer. Most recently, 62 whales and dolphins died this week when they were stranded at Hamelin Bay in WA - bringing the total to more than 460.

Despite advances in science, experts seem at a loss to explain exactly why whales and dolphins beach themselves. After all, aren't they supposed to be intelligent creatures?

Theories abound: is it herd mentality? Illness? Sonar from Navy ships? Changes in weather patterns?

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What is known is that rescuers need to act quickly to save the animals from themselves.

"The sun is the main problem," Arthur said. "They have low blubber so tend to heat up quickly." The stranding at King Island was a happy ending for Arthur's team with all 54 whales and 5 dolphins making it back to the open ocean, but it isn't always the case.

"Every situation and every beach is different," he said. "You have to work with the weather and with the tide."

Last November, Arthur and his team transported 11 pilot whales 17 km to another beach where calmer low tide conditions allowed the animals to be safely released back into the ocean.

"Animals usually die by being crushed or rolled in the surf and drowning," he explained so properly talking stock of the weather and tide conditions is vital for a successful rescue.

Unfortunately, success is the exception rather than the norm when it comes to mass strandings. Late last year 53 whales died when they stranded at Anthony's Beach and 155 died near Sandy Rocks.

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