Scientists Baffled by Recent String of Whale Strandings

by Amy Myers
Photo by REMKO DE WAAL/ANP/AFP via Getty Images

More than 477 pilot whales have become stranded and died on the shores of New Zealand’s Chatham Islands earlier this week. Just a few weeks before this, 230 more whales washed up on Tasmania off the coast of Australia. Thankfully, in this case, rescuers were able to save dozens of the stranded creatures, but, researchers still don’t have all the answers to why so many ended up on the beach.

With the influx of these strandings have come graphic images that depict the dire state that these whales are in. Naturally, the world has begun to pay closer attention to the phenomenon and how frequently they occur.

While conservationists still haven’t determined the source of the problem, they do have some theories behind the whale strandings.

Some Researchers Believe Whale Strandings Are a Result of Navigational Mistakes

Whales, along with dolphins, tend to be the most frequent victims of strandings. Both of these animals tend to travel in pods or fleets and depend on echolocation for navigation and communication with other members of the group.

Dr. Vanessa Pirotta, a wildlife scientist at Macquarie University in Sydney, believes that this crucial component may actually be the reason behind the hundreds of strandings. One miscommunication can lead the giant animal to shallower waters, and then the situation becomes dire.

“It could be that these animals may have been fishing or transiting through the water and unfortunately came through a navigational hazard and ended up on the beach,” Pirotta told NPR.

In addition to the navigational mishaps, Pirotta stated that the Chatham Islands’ relatively deep surrounding waters can also force pilot whales to make a crucial mistake. Further, pilot whales are incredibly social animals and will follow the path of a sick or misguided whale.

“The key point here is that any animal involved in a stranding does not want to be stranded,” Pirotta said.

Another theory is that these creatures are actually fleeing predators and end up redirecting towards the shore to an equally dangerous situation.

The Good News Is That Not All Strandings End in Fatalities

If the whale is still alive by the time it hits the shores, there is a good chance that it can survive, so long as rescuers take swift action.

Obviously, as mammals, whales aren’t at risk of suffocation on dry land, but they can very easily overheat in the sun. Additionally, without the buoyancy they experience underwater, their weight on land can actually crush their organs.

That said, it’s imperative that rescuers “re-float” the mammals before gravity or exposure can take its course, and while many times this effort is successful, Pirotta reported that stranded whales are subject to beaching again after refloating. Other times, the injuries that they sustain can become more severe once they’re back in the water, sealing their grim fate.

It’s a tough situation with no clear answer, but researchers like Pirotta and those at the Jonah Project aren’t settling until they have a better understanding of the strandings.

“There’s a reason why it’s happened, and we don’t know why. Trying to work that out is still a massive mystery in the science world.”