Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Mysterious Beached Whales

Beached whales never fail to baffle me.

Every year, hundreds of whales are found stranded on the beach and hence making them, well... beached whales. Beaching is often fatal for the whales as they become dehydrated or drown when tide water covers their blowholes.

Since at any one time, some whales must die due to old age or illness, I can understand why we do find single whales become stranded. These whales are either already dead or very ill and most inevitably end in death.

What I cannot comprehend is mass stranding. I was always under the impression that, for some strange reasons, whales find it 'fashionable' to organize suicidal pact. I was just being dumb.

Many scientists have come up with various hypotheses but none of these has been proven conclusively.
Some think that beached whales get confused signals in shallow water and misjudge their bearing. Another possible reason could be due to the change in the Earth's magnetic field just before an earthquake leading to this strange behavior of mass stranding.

Some believe mass stranding can be explained by the strong social cohesion amongst the whales. If one whale gets into trouble, its distress calls may prompt the other whales to follow and become beached themselves. It has been observed that in a mass stranding, stranded whales which are successfully led back into water tend to restrand themselves again, possibly because of their concern and attachment to the others who are still stranded.

It is not uncommon to find beached whales in coastal areas. Just last month, a group of 150 whales that became stranded on a remote coastline in southern Australia were battered to death on rocks before rescuers could save them.

Nearer to home, a whale was found stranded in shallow water at the Kuala Nenasi, in Pekan, Malaysia in October. The local fisheries department pulled the whale to the sea with a few marine boats and only to be shocked by its return in the next morning. The whale was beached again at a spot about 500 m from the earlier spot. The villagers did what they could to save the whale but it died.

Beached whales pose a practical problem when it comes to 'disposal'. Due to their sheer size, it is usually very challenging to remove them from the shore. In one incident back in the 70s in Oregon, USA, the local authorities decided to remove a beached whale as if it was a boulder. They used half a ton of explosives hoping to disintegrate the carcass in a single blow. What they did not expect was a rain of blubber earning them a messy lesson on what not to do. Today, most dead carcasses are burned and buried or towed to the high sea.

Not too long ago in 2004, another whale explosion happened in Taiwan. This time, no one used any explosives. Rather, a spontaneous explosion took place when there was a gas buildup in the decomposing whale while it was being transported for a post-mortem examination. I can imagine the stinking mess it created to the curious onlookers around it. Eww!

I fancy the idea of whale watching but I doubt I would like to witness a beached whale, dead or dying. It must be a really saddening sight which I won't miss.

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