After three long days, over 100 pilot whales were successfully returned to sea, thanks to countless dedicated volunteers in New Zealand. But of the 416 whales found beached on Feb. 10, nearly 300 perished in one of the worst mass strandings in the country’s history. Steve Whitehouse of Whale Rescue says these mass strandings are common on Farewell Spit in New Zealand and sadly, to be expected.
“Farewell Spit is what is known as a classic whale trap. It’s one of three or four places in the world where whales regularly strand,” Whitehouse told The New Zealand Herald. “It’s basically due to the topography of the land.”
As migrating whales approach the semi-circular, gently sloping beach, “the whales don’t get a return on their echolocators, their radar, if you like, and they assume they can keep going straight ahead and get into shallow water,” Whitehouse says. Unfortunately, the whales end up on the beach instead. This happens nearly every year.
Cape Cod in the northeastern U.S. has similar topography, he says, and it, too, has been the site of numerous marine mammal strandings over the years.
Mass beachings, however, are most common in “toothed” whales, which include dolphins and porpoises. Project Jonah in New Zealand says “toothed” whales have extremely tight social bonds. It’s theorized when a sick or disoriented whale becomes stranded and sends a distress signal, it can bring the rest of the pod to shore.
Lone whale beachings
When it comes to individual whales, “the causes for whales beaching themselves are so diverse, it would be akin to asking ‘why do people go to the ER?'” Mary Jane Schramm of the Greater Farallones Islands Marine Sanctuary says.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports anything from disease, injury from ship strikes, to entanglement in fish lines can be counted among the reasons whales come ashore.
Necropsies of deceased whales provide valuable information as to the cause of the strandings. Other basic data is collected, such as the whale’s age, reproductive history, food intake, and pollution or toxins in its system. All of this information helps researchers better understand these magnificent animals.
Aid and rescue of stranded marine animals
What should you do if you come across a sick or injured marine animal on the beach?
- First and foremost, DO NOT ATTEMPT ANY AID OR RESCUE ON YOUR OWN! Even with the best intentions, you could accidentally cause further stress or injury to the animal. You could even put your own safety at risk.
- Stay at least 50 feet away and keep other people and dogs away, too.
- Observe and gather information from a distance: What is its size? Does it have external earflaps? What is its color? Is it weak and thin? Does it have any open wounds? Does it have tags or other identifying markers? What is your exact location?
- Then immediately call marine animal experts for help.
- Don’t leave. Continue to stay 50 feet away until first responders arrive.
There are over 120 organizations nationwide, with highly trained personnel, authorized by the National Marine Fisheries Service to respond to such events. Most of these organizations function as first responders who then transport the animal to one of 32 rehab facilities.
Of course, if you want to do more to help, you can contact any of the organizations authorized to rescue marine animals and learn more about volunteer opportunities.