Suzanne Burns, 10th February, 2017.
Strandings of whales and dolphins (cetaceans) happen worldwide, sometimes in specific and regular locations such as Farewell Spit, Golden Bay in New Zealand but also in random places and at random times. The reasons for them to strand can not always be understood but possible reasons can include:
1) Disorientation in unfamiliar territory-cetaceans use sonar (sound waves) to ‘see’ their environment but unusual topography like sandbars, rapidly shifting sands and tides can be problematic and leave them beached or stuck in unfavourable conditions.
2) An animal is sick or dying– when a whale/dolphin is very ill they will sometimes be very weak and unable to swim properly. If this occurs they are sometimes washed into shallower areas as they are unable to keep themselves buoyant and mobile. Strong waves and tides can push them closer to shore, into harbours and even rivers that connect to the sea. Multiple strandings can occur if they are in a pod or family group. The other members will usually stay with the stricken relative regardless of risk to themselves and hence, multiple strandings can occur.
3) Effects of noise disturbance underwater which can cause an animal to flee an area-seismic activity which includes drilling underwater for oil and gas exploration can cause serious problems for cetaceans. The sound produced from these activities can cause hemorrhaging in the creature’s head and noise can be so unpleasant they flee the area rapidly. Effects of these on the sonar of cetaceans who are extremely acoustically sensitive can sometimes be fatal.
4) Escaping from predators-in areas where large predators like sharks and orcas prevail, smaller whales and dolphins will often flee their attacker but unwittingly strand themselves in the process.
5) Chasing prey close to shore -dolphins sometimes chase schooling fish into shore and can accidentally strand themselves when doing so.
What to do if you find a Stranded Whale or Dolphin?
- It might seem obvious, but the first thing to check is that they are alive! Cetaceans are conscious breathers, we are voluntary. This means they consciously hold their breath when necessary. They do this when diving underwater but will also do this when in an unfamiliar situation/environment and are stressed. A whale or dolphin that appears to not be breathing might actually be holding its breath! Gently touch the blowhole to see if there is any reaction.
- Second thing to check if they don’t appear to be breathing is their eye(s). If the eye is closed or not blinking, gently blow on it to see if the animal responds. If it does not respond to these checks it has most likely passed away.
- If the animal is breathing or some eye movement is detected you can now proceed. Call the local Coastguard, Fire Brigade, Marine Research centres, Animal Welfare Conservation groups to people who can respond quickly and effectively.
- The animal will definitely be very stressed, scared and likely in pain. Water allows these animals to grow large without the constraints of gravity. On land their prodigious size in some cases can cause bone and organ crushing on land and impede their ability to breathe easily.
- It is imperative to try and keep the animal as calm as you can. Simple measures to make it as comfortable need to be employed as soon as possible.
- Do not have anyone standing in front of the animal or behind. The tail fluke can be powerful and dangerous so keep well clear. The animal has an area in the front of its head called the ‘melon’. The sonar that the animal uses comes from here. They are very sensitive to their immediate environment and any person or object in front of their heads needs to be moved away. A bucket, dog, cloth, person in front of them will cause them unnecessary stress. Please keep this area clear.
- To keep animals calm, avoid loud noises, keep dogs and small children away and make no unnecessary movements.
- If the animal is on its side, cover it with wet sheets (do not cover the blowhole). Try to dig a shallow trench parallel to its belly, remove the sheets and gently roll the animal into the trench. Ideally use 4-6 people for this.
- Keep the flippers tucked down and into its side and dig a trench below each flipper so that they can hang freely and not be crushed.
- If the creature is too big to do this or is suctioned to sand, take care not to over exert yourself and injure yourself and others.
- Cover the animal in wet sheets or clothing, keep pouring water onto these regularly. DO NOT cover the blowhole, eyes and mouth. DO NOT pour water into the blowhole.
- Have a buddy-designate someone to sit next to the animal, by their side, near to their head to gently talk and reassure them.
Once all of these measures have been employed and the animal is as comfortable as you can make it, it now can be seen if the animal can be returned to deeper water or if the tide will come in sufficiently.
- If the animal is small enough to move like a dolphin or porpoise and there are enough people, a tarpaulin, sling or pontoon can be used to return it to water.
- Care must be taken when moving it, using the tarpaulin, sling or pontoon to support the animal and not to drag or pull at its body, particularly its fins and fluke.
- Avoid the mouth and fluke for safety.
- Only people with wetsuits should be involved in the refloating and release. Try to time the release with waves for easier release and buoyancy of the animal.
- Keep the animal from rough surfaces or rocks on the beach or in the water.
- Once the animal is in waist-deep water you can gently rock it from side to side to help it reorientate itself. This should be done with at least 2 people, one on each side and done for as long as possible to familiarise the animal with its environment.
- At least half an hour should be spent with each animal and check to ensure it is surfacing to breathe, its body is upright and it can upright itself if rolled over.
- If the animal swims back towards shore, slapping the water’s surface or striking a metal object can deter them. If enough people are present a human chain can be used in the water to try and prevent the animal swimming back.
- Body language such as tail slapping and open mouth lunging can be signs of aggression. If the animal is acting defensively or aggressively do not risk your own safety.
- If a small boat, inflatable or kayak is available these can also be used to guide the animal out to deeper water.
As the two orca brothers slipped quietly past us, their enormous shiny fins cut through the water like daggers. They had been weaving their way through the Strait for the past half hour and while Kaikash moved with ease and grace, his older brother Plumper was laboured in his movements. He struggled to remain at the surface and his breathing was strained and stressed.
Word in the area was that Plumper was dying. Seeing such a magnificent, big, bold creature, wheeze and struggle in his watery abode moved us all. There was nothing anyone could do except keep an eye out for him and his brother and hope and pray that somehow he would come right.
It was obvious from Plumper’s breathing that he was in trouble, but there was another more subtle sign that most people would never have noticed. Certain scientists, conservationists and locals knew he was starving to death, but how? Poor Plumper was suffering from a condition called ‘Peanut Head’.
A healthy, well fed orca in essence doesn’t have a discernable neck. Their head runs in a smooth line to their back, giving the appearance of a streamlined, glossy surface. If this creature due to illness or lack of food begins to starve, they lose weight around their head and a groove forms in the area where a neck would be on other creatures. This shrunken head and this notch in their ‘neck’ region gives them the unusual title of ‘Peanut Head’.
Some years earlier, there had been three of these brothers, or the three amigos as they were called. Plumper, Kaikash and their other brother Cracroft were an indomitable force and regularly seen together. Their mother Sophia had died in 1997 leaving the males to fend for themselves. In orca society, males stay with their mothers till death and some don’t thrive after her passing. The alliance forged between these three after Sophia’s death endured and the brothers were always seen together. They were even adopted for a time by a matriarch called Scimitar who had lost two of her own sons. Cracroft was the oldest of the three and was last seen alive in the Spring of 2010.
In the Spring and Summer of 2014, numerous sightings of Kaikash and Plumper around Johnstone Strait indicated that Plumper’s health was faltering. One of the last evenings out on the water for the season and Plumper was swimming ahead of us, silhouetted by the brilliant sunshine casting an ethereal glow on his back. As he exhaled, the mist that emanated from his body formed golden droplets that glittered and dazzled us. I took a photo of him in this cascade of light and this was when I first saw that mortal sign on his neck. The sun perfectly illuminated the depression beneath his head, an ominous sign of his failing health.
This was the last time that I saw Plumper alive. Within a couple of weeks he was missing, presumed dead. He was never seen again. Around the same week that I had seen him, researchers from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and Vancouver Aquarium filmed orcas using a hexacopter drone. The research aimed to determine if salmon fisheries were impacting orca populations. Their pioneering research was establishing the body condition of the orcas in the area. Ascertaining the size of an orca from a boat is problematic as it is hard to see their bodies completely. However to view an orca from the sky is a different matter. The researchers were able to see clearly if certain individuals were thriving or declining. Footage of Plumper from the drone indicated that he was very skinny.
They were also able to see if any females were pregnant. Armed with this vital information, the scientists were able to foresee population growth and decline and pinpoint problematic areas. If an orca is starving, this can potentially illustrate an issue with declining fish stocks. With knock on effects of fish declines affecting orcas, new legislation and protective measures can be brought in to help these creatures.
Suzanne Burns, 2015.
Well, they do. A lot.
The following clip shows how, around the islands of Hawaii, dolphins and humpback whales have been engaging in some form of sea wrestling, with the whales lifting the dolphins out of the water and letting them slide down their backs.
There are a number of pictures across a number of locations, meaning that this behaviour is more widespread than first thought.
The observers noted that the behaviour was unlike other animal symbiotic relationships in that it was not for a beneficial purpose (such as parasitism), but almost certainly for play.
Scientists who investigated the phenomenon noted that there is also zero evidence that the behaviour was hostile – but a quick look at the clip will show you that.
Like me, you are probably upset that whales and dolphins have been hanging out together all this time and they didn’t tell us about it.
We are unsure exactly what the whale gets out of this situation, other than perhaps a nice back rub, but the pictures certainly make me want to put on the ol’ dolphin costume and head down to the beach.
Is it a brush? Is it a broom? No, it’s baleen!
It is found inside the mouths of baleen whales which are known as Mysticetes or the ‘Moustached whales’. This bristly mouthpiece is actually comprised of keratin which also makes our hair and nails. The baleen whales are among some of the largest whales in the world, including the blue whale and the humpback whale among others. Despite their enormous size, these giants feed on some of the smallest creatures in the ocean, krill and small fish. They swallow vast quantities of water and expel the water through the sieve-like krill plates. The little creatures get trapped in the baleen and the whale licks along the plates to flush the creatures into its mouth.
Suzanne Burns 2015.
An adult male orca is an impressive beast and one not to be trifled with. Six tons of flesh, bone and blubber constitute this imposing dolphin. For all of his potential brute force and physical abilities, this male has a surprising secret, he is the ultimate Mummy’s boy.
He will live out his whole life in the family fold with his mother charting his course. Daddy is nowhere to be found. He was a romantic interlude many moons ago that lasted no more than an aquatic tryst. The young male progeny will go from a playful young buck to an impressive bull that will dwarf his mother. Adult females usually weigh between 3-4…
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The experience of being close to a whale is nothing short of transformative. When you are at close range and a whale looks at you square in the eye, you know that you are eye to eye with a sentient being. No amount of discussions on brain size or intelligence can take from that simple feeling of connection with this creature.
Suzanne Burns 2015.
Photo credit: http://great-whales.livejournal.com/2161.html
Gray whales, thought by some scientists to live as long as 100 years, were once commonly referred to as “hardheaded devil fish” because of the ferocity with which they would defend themselves and their young, smashing whaling vessels and killing their occupants. A gray-whale hunting ban agreed upon by most of the world’s whaling nations in 1937, along with the inherent resilience and adaptability of the eastern Pacific gray, has since allowed the species a rather remarkable rebound. Its current population is estimated to be in the range of 18,000, and in 1994 the gray became the first marine mammal to be removed from protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. Still, the question of why present-day gray-whale mothers, some of whom still bear harpoon scars, would take to seeking us out and gently shepherding their young into our arms is a mystery that now captivates whale researchers and watchers alike.
Some marine biologists have dismissed the phenomenon as little more than a reflexive behavior, suggesting that the whales are merely attracted to the sound of the boats’ motors or that they are looking to scratch their lice-ridden and barnacled backs against the boats’ hulls. Still, a combination of anecdotal evidence and recent scientific research into whale biology and behavior suggests that there may be something far more compelling going on in the lagoons of Baja each winter and spring. Something, let’s say, along the lines of that time-worn plot conceit behind many a film, in which the peaceable greetings of alien visitors are tragically rebuffed by human fear and ignorance. Except that in this particular rendition, the aliens keep coming back, trying, perhaps, to give us another chance. To let us, of all species, off the hook.
The story is by now legend in the small fishing villages of Baja and beyond: how on a February morning in 1972, Francisco Mayoral — who is known as Pachico and happens to be the father of Ranulfo, the guide on my trip with Frohoff — was out in his panga with his partner, Santo Luis Perez, fishing for sea bass when a female gray whale approached their boat. Pachico tried to maneuver away. The whale, however, kept rising up beside them. At one point, she positioned herself directly under the panga. Pachico, Ranulfo told me one night over dinner at our beachside base camp, had no choice but to hold his place and wait for what would come next. “All he knew,” Ranulfo recalled of his father, “was that this animal was the boss.”……
Of course, as the mother gray kept circling his boat on that February morning in 1972, the question of whether the grays of Baja had somehow heard the news of our gradual transition from murdering whales to marveling at them was very much on the mind of Pachico Mayoral. “At one point she went directly under and lifted the boat out of the water,” Ranulfo, the son, told me. Pachico and his partner were poised there helplessly, like Sinbad and countless other travelers along the “whale road,” as early Icelanders once referred to the sea.
And then their boat soon settled again, and the mother gray came back around once more, her head popping up out of the water now directly beside Pachico. She remained there for so long, just eyeing him, that Pachico finally reached across and touched her with a finger. And then with his whole hand, the whale holding still there before him, as if basking in the feel of a grasp without malice. “Before then, everyone went out of our way to avoid the whales,” Ranulfo told me. “And then all of that suddenly changed.”
Excerpt sourced from: New York Times, July 8, 2009. “Watching Whales Watching Us” by Charles Siebert