This article was first published in The Viking News, April 14, 2004, a bi-weekly publication of the State University of New York, Westchester Community College.
By Taffy Lee Williams
At the farthest point of land at the very tip of Cape Cod is a little known but hard at work non-profit organization called the Center For Coastal Studies (CCS). Their mission is simple: the study of coastal ecosystems, public education about our waters and the rescue of stranded whales.
It was August, 2003, when in the midst of a sweltering hot summer which I was attempting to endure without air-conditioning the news came that 56 pilot whales had beached themselves on the western side of Cape Cod.
As word spread, over 300 volunteers poured onto the remote beaches where the whales lay in disarray, wailing in pain. It is a scene played out all over the world when whales end up on the beaches. The urgency of getting these leviathans back into the safety of the water is gripping to witnesses, the reality all too familiar. A whale out of the water is a whale that will soon die: the heavily insulated bodies are cooled by ocean waters, their massive weight made buoyant by the sea. On the shore, the weight of their bodies will crush internal organs, and body temperatures will skyrocket. In the hot sun, as they were on these Lawrence Island beaches, they will literally bake to death.
Rescuers, like those at CCS, have a hard time helping stranded whales into the water. Sunburned bodies give the whales external pain, and trying to urge them into deeper water means somehow moving them beyond muddy flats and rough sand safely despite sensitized outer skin. And whales are heavy. The 10 foot pilot whales each weigh upwards of 1800 pounds.
While the whales cried in pain to each other, volunteers covered the bodies with wet towels and poured water over them, praying the tide would help carry the whales out to freedom. But it wasn't to be that simple. Something else was wrong.
Whales beach themselves for a variety of reasons. It appears, at times, that they are running away from something. Intense acoustic events, such as underwater volcanic eruptions, earthquakes or even military weapons explosions can send massive amounts of sound and energy through the water, often for many hundreds of miles. If the sound is intense enough to cause pain whales will naturally run to avoid it. In the Bahamas in March 2000, 17 whales beached themselves when a naval exercise involving 7 ships and 3 submarines projected 235+ decibels of mid frequency sonar while passing through a channel.
The intense man-made acoustic event tore through the ears, lungs and cranial areas and in what must have been extreme violent pain, the whales drove themselves out of the water, up onto the sandy shores. They escaped the noise but their ears, lungs, and brains had literally exploded; a merciful death followed on land shortly thereafter. The final NOAA report concluded that military sonar was the only possible source of the acoustic trauma seen in the whales as there were no other acoustic events, i.e., earthquakes or explosions, in the area at the time of the strandings. They should know. They have acoustic monitoring devices throughout the area where the strandings occurred.
A similar stranding occurred in the Canary Islands during a military exercise in the fall of 2002. On September 24, the Canary Islands government issued a statement linking the cetacean deaths with low frequency emissions generated by powerful sonar equipment on board the NATO craft. Fifteen whales ended up on the beaches before Spanish officials contacted the fleet and stopped the exercise.
In another in this ongoing ominous history, witnesses observed a hundred dolphins fleeing, endangered orcas huddled together near the surface, and 10 porpoises beached coincidental with sonar exercises conducted by the USS Shoup in Puget Sound, May 2003. Renown marine biologist, Ken Balcomb, who witnessed both the Puget Sound and Bahamas stranding events, has called the US Navy the "most egregious of marine mammal harassers and killers worldwide."
Amazingly, necropsies of dead whales more often than not, woefully omit examinations of the ears or auditory system. If the whale's hearing is compromised or it was deaf, we are not made aware of this, and the myth that we can propagate such high levels of noise through the waters without harming marine life continues. If a whale is hit by a vessel, or "ship struck," a reasonable explanation is that despite the noise of the motor, the whale simply didn't "hear" it, or "see" it. Ship strikes, which may kill a whale, rarely occurred until just a few years ago, interestingly paralleling the rise of intense acoustic propagation of high intensity military sonar, high decibel air gun explosions for underwater exploration and oil drilling, and shipping vessel traffic with deafening monstrously sized motors. Sadly, one Massachusetts official flippantly remarked that he believed whales were hit by ships because "they're stupid." Attitudes like this in our public officials make it difficult to get to the real cause of the problem. This official could offer no answer when asked if inner ear exams were standard in ship struck necropsies. His response was to change the subject.
The problem of underwater noise is so severe that humans have been effected as well. Increased loss of hearing is a frequent complaint among long-time commercial divers who often change careers to avoid going deaf. Besides harming whales, fish, turtles and other marine organisms can be damaged and even killed by the massive amounts of unmuffled sound created by vessel traffic, gun arrays for drilling, military explosions and sonar.
Besides the acoustic threats they are facing today, whales, the largest mammals in the oceanic food chain, are susceptible to bio-accumulation of toxins, oil pollution, and entanglement in massive ropes and fishing lines discarded or broken off from commercial fishing operations.
Often strandings are attributed to illness. Complex navigational systems, or echo-location abilities, which are dependent on whale's keen auditory abilities, may be impaired by some unknown factor which may include infections, bacteria, or parasites. If the animal can't hear, it can't navigate, find food, or even stay in contact with its pod. The importance of hearing to marine organisms cannot be understated. Marine mammals use hearing as humans on land use vision. Its role is critical to their survival.
Although they tragically perished on the Cape Cod mud flats, the pilot whales brought out the best of humanity, as overwhelming concern compelled so many to desperately try to save them.
Human beings seem to empathize with whales in a special way. Perhaps there is an instinctive knowledge of their oceanic superiority, their sheer size striking awe in their land-bound top of the food chain counterparts. Seeing their death is painful; people are drawn out of their comfortable everyday routine to try and help them. Perhaps as the reality of these threats are understood and embraced there will be progress in putting urgently needed protections in place.
One hopes that the collective human race will begin working together to once and for all stop the unnecessary destruction of our precious marine life. For more information visit http://www.csiwhalesalive.org/.
The New York Whale and Dolphin Action
PO Box 273, Yonkers, NY 10707 USA
To subscribe send an email to email@example.com
A Project of Cetacean Society International
URL for this page: http://ny4whales.org/wcc_strandedwhales.html