Explained: Why have hundreds of whales died in Australia?

By: Explained Desk |

September 23, 2020 6:00:38 pm

A pod of whales is seen stranded on a sandbar at Macquarie Harbour, near Strahan, Tasmania, Australia (AAP Image/The Advocate Pool, Brodie Weeding via REUTERS)Since Monday, over 450 long-finned pilot whales have died in Australia in what is being called the biggest stranding of whales on record in Australia. The whales were beached at a remote beach in Tasmania’s west coast.
Why do whales beach themselves?
Whales are known to strand themselves on beaches across the world and they do so singularly or in groups. While individual strandings are mostly attributed to injury or sickness, it is not clear why exactly whales beach themselves in groups.
Even so, there are a few theories that might explain this behaviour. One reason could be that some whales follow schooling fish or other prey into shallow waters, which causes the whales to become disoriented, as a result of which they get stranded. Another reason could be panic from being trapped by a predator such as killer whales or sharks. Another possibility is that whales might be drawn to land by prey-rich currents. Further, the shape of the beach and the coastline could also have a role to play. For instance, if the beach has gently-sloping shorelines, whales that are dependent on echolocation for navigation can be deceived.
According to Australia’s Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, the species that most often get stranded on Australian beaches are those that use echolocation or sonar for navigation, such as pilot and sperm whales.
What happens when whales are stranded?
According to a press release issued by Tasmania’s Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment, from an aerial survey, most of the stranded whales appear to be dead. To save the ones that are still alive, scientists and workers involved in the rescue mission try to drag the whales away from the shore and guide them back into the water.

Are such strandings common?
Whale stranding is neither an uncommon nor a recent phenomenon. While dead individuals would naturally wash up ashore, mass beaching has baffled humans since at least 300 BC. “It is not known why they sometimes run aground on the seashore,” noted Aristotle. “It is asserted that this happens when the fancy takes them and without any apparent reason.” Centuries later, the Romans thought stranding was a whale’s punishment for offending Neptune, the god of the seas.
Before this, the largest stranding that has occurred in Tasmania happened in 1935 when over 294 whales were stranded. This stranding also involved long-finned pilot whales.
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