Sperm Whales Stranded On Shore In Germany, Adding To North Sea’s Death Toll

Eight dead sperm whales have washed up on a German beach, adding to the toll of 12 others stranded recently on the German and Dutch North Sea Coast. As the Telegraph reports, these are added to four more whales who washed up on a beach in England in mid-January, and there were others prior to that. At least 25 whales have stranded on beaches along the North Sea this year. All are believed to be from the same family or pod.

What is going on here?

There are all kinds of theories about why whales and dolphins beach themselves. It could be anything from sonar interference to a messed-up migration pattern, as suggested in Inquistr’s story about an Australian baby dolphin. Luckily for the dolphin, some teenagers found her, and she was pushed back into the sea.

You can’t push around a 60-ton sperm whale.

Most of the whales, when found, were already deceased. All are adolescent males. According to the Natural History Museum, an autopsy was performed on January 25 by the Zoological Society of London. It indicated that all were in good health.

Peter Evans, the director of the SeaWatch Foundation, suggested that the whales may have been hunting and perhaps chased a shoal of squid into the North Sea around New Year.

“As they head south the water becomes shallower. Once they end up on a sand bank it’s all over for the whale. It causes cardiovascular collapse and their organs start failing.”

Andrew Brownlow, who had performed an autopsy on one of the whales stranded off the Netherlands, said the whales were in good condition and had not been dehydrated.

“We were also able to rule out a boat strike or entanglement, which is a common cause of strandings. But we weren’t able to look at the brains so we can’t rule out various illnesses, or a sudden noise that scared them.”

Rebecca Lyal, Cetacean Stranding Support Officer of the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP), told the Natural History Museum that only males will come up into the North Sea. The females, she said, stay near the Equator. The males migrate.

“The young ones may not have got the hang of reading the bathymetry, the landscape of the seabed, with their sonar, so they may have been foraging, chasing squid and then not realising that they were actually entering quite shallow water.”

She added, “Sperm whales are deep sea mammals and are coming in from about 1,000 meters, when they hit the continental shelf this leaves them with around 200m of depth, and then the North Sea peaks to about an average of 50 meters, so the deepest point is about 70 meters and the shape of it is like a giant funnel. In shallow waters the whales can’t make proper use of their sonar, it’s like they’ve been blinded, which can lead to them beaching.”

Brownlow said that there are more whales in the ocean now due to the embargo, and there is more competition among males to breed. As the sea currents change, the water is warming farther north. These young male whales may be leaving their pods in larger groups.

“There are valid concerns that we are making the oceans noisier, which makes it harder for whales to navigate.”

Experts agree that the North Sea is like a death trap for a sperm whale. Once they get stranded, it is nearly impossible to save them.

Now, communities are faced with the giant problem of disposing of the dead whales. During decomposition, gas accumulates inside the whale’s body. A dead whale left on the beach will sometimes explode.

Beyond that, people are walking around taking selfies with dead whales, and several of the school-bus-sized mammals have been painted with graffiti. A trophy hunter was caught ripping a whale’s teeth out.

It is disheartening to hear of the disrespect that happens with some of the world’s most imposing leviathans.

A sperm whale can dive to nearly 4,000 feet. That’s just short of a mile. A sperm whale can tackle a giant squid and have it for breakfast. They are the largest of the toothed whales and the largest predators on the planet. Their sonar is the loudest sound made by any animal, and that alone could kill you. There are many legends about them turning on whalers and swallowing people whole. And yet, despite the Moby Dick reputation, they have a gentle nature, and divers on occasion will enjoy a swim with them.

There are many reasons to wish that sperm whales would remain where they are safe, deep “in the heart of the sea.”

[Image via Shutterstock]