beached whales, beached dolphins
Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service, Liz Wren, HO

Australia Has Second Mass Beaching of Whales This Month

March 25, 2009 11:15 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
A massive volunteer effort is underway to save 80 beached whales and dolphins. Experts still don’t know what causes beaching.

Mass Beaching at Hamelin Bay

The West Australian (WA) has been following the story of 80 long-finned pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins that became stranded after a mass beaching at Hamelin Bay in Western Australia.

On March 23, the day of the beaching, Australia’s Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) identified the whales, which were initially believed to be false killer whales. Rescuers were attempting to “re-group the animals … into one pod” before trucking them to deeper, safer water at Flinders Bay, DEC’s Greg Mair told the newspaper.

On March 24, the WA reported that the 10 surviving whales had “disappeared out to sea” at Flinders Bay, thanks to the efforts of “hundreds of volunteers.” One of the 11 whales trucked to the bay struggled to breathe and was brought back to shore by rescuers fearful that “it would lead the pod back into the beach.”
Long-finned pilot whales typically measure up to six meters long, and can weigh more than three tons. Cranes are used to lift and release the whales into the sea. According to the WA, if the whales “were not returned to the sea together, they were considered likely to beach again on hearing the distress calls of stranded whales.”

U.K. newspaper The Guardian has video footage of the stranded whales and volunteers caring for them.

Background: Whale beaching in southwest Australia

Whale strandings are not unusual in southwest Australia, according to the Daily Telegraph, “but scientists do not know why it happens” and beaching of whales and dolphins together is “unusual.”

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Earlier this month, nearly 200 pilot whales “beached themselves on an island near Australia's southern state of Tasmania,” reported Reuters. Rescuers struggled to save the remaining 54 whales that were still alive not long after the group became stranded.

And in late January, 50 sperm whales beached themselves in northwest Tasmania, the largest stranding of the species seen by Chris Arthur of Australia’s Parks and Wildlife, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Opinion & Analysis: Why whales beach themselves

In an article for Research|Penn State, Marissa McCauley discussed why whales beach themselves with Susan Parks, a research associate in the Environmental Acoustics program in the Applied Research Laboratory at Penn State. Parks explained that there are several different types of strandings, and scientists continue to research the causes of each.

Some researchers point to “the whale ‘pod’ social structure,” which relies on one dominant whale. This phenomenon can sometimes result in a group of whales following “a disoriented or sick whale onto shore,” Parks explained. Others theorize that pods swim “too close to the beach when hunting prey or evading predators and become trapped by low tides,” according to Parks.

Weather and whales’ internal navigation systems are other theories, but “[t]he problem with these theories is that we don’t know exactly how whales navigate,” Parks told McCauley.

Environmentalists often point to naval exercises and sonar as causes for whale beaching.

In December, the United States Navy “settled a lawsuit filed by environmentalists challenging its use of sonar in hundreds of submarine-hunting exercises around the world.” The settlement requires the Navy to continue researching “how sonar affects whales and other marine mammals,” but does not “require sailors to adopt additional measures to protect the animals when they use sonar,” reported The Associated Press.

The lawsuit began in 2005 when several environmental groups, including one led by Jean-Michel Cousteau, “sued the US Navy … over its use of sonar, saying the ear-splitting sounds violated environmental protection laws,” according to The Independent. At the time, a United Nations report said that whales and dolphins were threatened by naval sonar.

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