Why do whales beach themselves?

29 November 2009

Question

Why do whales beach themselves?

Answer

Helen - That's a great question, but unfortunately part of the answer is, we actually don't know. In only around half of the whales stranded around the world is a cause found. And there are usually all sorts of things we know can cause whales to beach themselves, often fatally. These include things like diseases, trauma if they've been hit by a boat or something like that, or an anomaly in magnetic fields. We know a little about how whales use magnetic fields to navigate. If there's an anomaly that doesn't seem to make sense to them, or perhaps a change to a coastline, they might get confused, and that may lead them into an area that can't escape from and eventually end up on a beach.Also, things like underwater noise has been implicated including military sonar though there's very little evidence that is what's going on. We need a lot more studies to really understand if that is a problem because whales can be very sensitive to underwater noise. We know that they can hear each other so if humans are being very noisy, that can certainly is likely to confuse them and end up having these big problems.You also have to remember that these mass strandings, when lots and lots of whales and dolphins end up on a beach, has been going on for an awfully long time. Since Aristotle's time people have been seeing these mass strandings, so clearly a long time before we were making really big impact on the oceans. This means that there must be a natural element to it as well. There are reports of increased mass strandings at the moment, but there are also more people looking for them and more of us at the coast. So that might be one reason, and we should really be taking all these things into account when we're considering what's causing it, and whether we should be trying to do something to stop it.

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