Why Whales Strand: The Logical Truth

(notice how the waves are always washing in when whales strand)


The logical truth can not be considered untrue;
nor can any situation arise to cause us to deny it.

by Capt. David Williams

2013 science article about whale strandings (free PDF file)
seaquake solutions to previous whale mass strandings

Logical Truth #1:
  The US Navy solved the mystery of why whales strand in 1966 when they warned the public that “MARINE LIFE CAN BE DESTROYED BY A SEAQUAKE.”  (see left column of page 59 at this link) In this science paper the US Navy declared that natural seafloor upheavals were powerful enough to sink ships (link). They stated on the last page: Damaging seaquake: The ship may be thrown about in the water with such force that mast, booms, superstructure and machinery as well as the hull may be damaged. It is possible for seams to be opened to such an extent that flooding cannot be contained and the vessel sinks.

seaquake kills 5 whales
June 1945 – 5 whales killed by seaquake

The US Navy was right. A 30 second series of seismic pressure shocks (AKA: seaquakes) can easily sink ships, kill and injure pods of whales, kill fish with swim bladders, kill and injure sea turtles, and also kill every other breath-holding diving mammal including polar bears, seals, walrus, and humans.

This is not something new. Many seamen have witnessed dead whales floating after a concussion from a seaquake but thought such deaths were normal as revealed by the 1945 example on the left. Fishermen and whalers just went out to sea, hooked up to the dead whales and towed them to the whaling station and collected some cash. No alarm at all and no one doubted that a seaquake could injure a pod of whales. They didn’t care in those days because they slaughter the beached whales and sold the meat to mink farmers.

You can prove this to yourself by searching old newspaper archives and older books going back to the time when they first started printing the news. Dig in these records and you will find thousands of mariners who experienced a seaquake and lived to tell their stories. I have collected over 5,000 seaquake-vessels encounters and am slowly getting them all posted on the Internet to prove to you that seaquake shock waves are indeed dangerous to ships and to pods of diving whales. Read the link above. This is not fake science or opinion. These are the actual stories from those that experienced a natural undersea upheaval and lived to tell their stories.  Some are not so scary; others are hellish nightmares.

My question to the US Navy is simple. If your Maritime Safety Office knew in 1966 that seaquakes could sink ships and kill and injure marine life, why didn’t you give scientists a little money to investigated whether a seaquake might make pods of whales strand themselves? Even as late as 1983, scientists suggested that the biosonar system of 41 sperm whales stranded on the Oregon Coast might have been jammed by a seaquake (link). In fact,  scientists suggested way back in 1946 that an undersea upheaval could stun whales and cause them to lose their sense of direction (link). The idea that a pod of whales strand because they have been stunned by a seaquake should have been the first concept to rule out. So why didn’t the US Navy research how a seaquake might jam a whale’s echo-navigation system? After all, seaquakes causing a pressure-related diving injury agrees 100% with what the Navy said in 1966. If a seaquake could stun an entire pod of sperm whales and cause them to lose their acoustic sense of direction, then the solution to the centuries-old mystery about why whales strand on sandy beaches would have been answered long ago.

Is the US Navy Stupid or Hiding Something?

In May 1968, two years after warning mariners that seaquakes could kill marine life and sink ships, the sleek nuclear attack submarine USS Scorpion mysteriously sank in the seismically-active Azores Islands along with her crew of 99 US sailors. There were no seaquakes in the official US government records, but purging these files would have been a simple matter of an admiral making a 2 minute phone call. And, there were no seismic stations in the Azores capable of detecting a dangerous quake near where the Scorpion was located when she sent her last message.

The rumor secretly started by the US Navy, and then denied, was that the Russians had sank the Scorpion. However, on 15 December 1968, in a transaction withheld from the press and the public, the Office of Naval Research signed a $2.6 million contract with Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. Scripps was to complete a study entitled OVERPRESSURES DUE TO EARTHQUAKES PROJECT (link).  Even though this research was not officially classified, it was not publicly announced or widely distributed until 2015 when a digital copy was accidentally released by the National Technical Information Service (NTIS copy). Google notified me of this effort because my search data has been set on “submarine earthquake” for maybe a decade.

The implications are clear. The US Navy, pretending in 1968 to know nothing about seaquakes sinking ships, wanted Scripps to tell them how overpressures from a quake sank the USS Scorpion.  They also wanted Scripps to develop a SEAQUAKE HAZARDS CHART so they could keep the five other Skipjack-class submarines out of harm’s way until they could retire them without embarrassing the admirals. This they ordered even though the 1966 report by the US Navy’s Maritime Safety Division included a far more better SEAQUAKE HAZARDS CHART then they got from Scripps. This research effort was instigated as a fall back plan in case Congress discovered that Scorpion was indeed a victim of a seaquake.

Scorpion would have survived the encounter had it not been for her horrible state of repair, the stress cracks in her stern, and the fact that her emergency blow system was not working. The fallback plan was to pretend the admirals know nothing about the real danger of seaquakes. The cover-up would have never been detected had the US Navy purged all the documents as originally planned. They missed the two reports mentioned above. Now they have some explaining to do.

It was obvious in 1966 that the US Navy wanted the public to know that seaquakes could sink ships. On the other hand, in 1968, after the Nuclear Submarine Scorpion disappeared, the US Navy changed its mind and decided that the public should not know about the dangers of seaquakes. One likely reason is that the USS Scorpion is still leaking dangerous radiation into Azorean fishing grounds. This would explain why they don’t want you to know anything about seaquakes and whale strandings. They are afraid someone might expose their dirty secrets as I just did. The US Navy needs to stop lying about why whales strand. (Read more of the Scorpion Cover-up)

Now Back to Why Whales Strand 

According to the law of parsimony, when selecting between hypotheses that predict equally well, we should pick the one with the fewest assumptions.

Since the US Navy has already confirmed that seaquakes kill marine life, and might have sunk the nuclear attack submarine USS Scorpion, the simplest hypothesis to explain why whales strand is that a seaquake has injured an entire pod in a way that causes them to lose their acoustic sense of direction and they swim blindly into a beach, usually at night when the waves are kicked up and their eyesight is not so keen.

Logical Truths #2: The more we think about a pod of whales not being able to acoustically sense the beach directly in front of them, the more the idea makes sense, especially for the common nighttime beachings. It’s also surprisingly easy to figure out the direction that a pod of non-navigating whales will swim because the only direction they can swim is downstream with the flow of the surface currents.  Downstream is the path of least drag. It’s like water always flows downhill. Everything swimming or floating on the surface of the ocean, without a good sense of direction, will be directed by the current into the downstream path of least resistance (drag). If lost whales tried to swim upstream, drag forces would turn them around in a matter of seconds and point them head first in the path of the flowing water. It would be impossible for a lost pod to swim in any other direction for more than 15 seconds.

(notice how the waves are always washing in when whales strand)

That the swim path of stranded whales is being controlled by the surface currents was noticed by Dr. Dan Odell, in 1982. He said current plays a big part in why whales strand. He also notice that when strandings occur along Florida’s East Coast, there was an unusual deep intrusion of  clear blue Gulf Stream water in close to the shoreline.  This was and still is easy to spot by observing the color change near shore; deep blue waters are close to shore when whales strand.

The fact that whales are swimming the downstream current when they go ashore is a dead give-away that they have no sense of direction on their own.  Dr. Dan Odell was right. He released some of his finding to the news media (link) and published a science paper in 2005 confirming the role that currents play in guiding whales ashore (link). If he had added a seaquake-damaged biosonar system to his hypothesis he would have solved the mystery of why whales strand before I did. We released a similar article about the Gray whales that died off Point Barrow Alaska in 1988 (link). Therein, we discussed how gray whales followed the flow of the surface currents and got trapped in the ice.

Why can’t today’s whale scientists see that Dr. Dan Odell was right? It’s strange that they never mention the flow of current during a stranding. Are whales scientists participating with the US Navy to hide the real reason why whales strand? If you want to know the answer, read this link.

It is also commonly known that the flow of the current washes sand to the shore to build beaches. This means that since the downstream flow is guiding the lost pod, the odds are overwhelming that the surface current will direct the lost whales to a beach, which explains why whales strand on beaches. It could not be any more logical–whales strand because they have lost their acoustic sense of direction.

One other point to consider in understanding why whales strand: all around the world, those beaches with hooked shapes that oppose the flow of the usual current trap the most sand and the most whales. Farewell Spit in New Zealand, Cape Sorell in Tasmania, and Cape Cod in the USA are the three best examples.

If you want to know why whales strand and where they strand, just look for areas where the beaches are building, not washing away.

Here’s another little hint that we are on the right track. If we pushed the stranded whales and/or dolphins back into the water while the wind-driven current and the tidal flow is still washing ashore, the inflow will simply turn them around and point them right back to the beach. This has happened thousands of times in the past and no one ever bother to try to understood why.

And, if you ever wonder why a pod of whales or dolphins end up stuck in the mud of a backwater lagoon, just check the times that the incoming tide was washing rapidly through the inlet and you will see that the strong inbound flow of water was the guiding force that drew the lost pod into the backwaters. In fact, no matter where you look, if you check the tides and the wind-driven currents at the time of the beaching you will see that the current was always washing towards the stranding beach and NEVER away from it.

Here’s another little tidbit for you to verify. The only time a stranded pod with no acoustic sense of direction will swim away from shore is when they are pushed back into the water at the same time that the wind-driven current and/or tidal flow are washing back out to sea. This is exactly what the rescue teams do–they wait until the surface currents are flowing towards deep water before they release the whales. In other words, that beached whales have no sense of direction agrees with the consistent observations that they MUST be released when the current is flowing back out to sea.

Thus, for the purpose of modeling our logical hypothesis to explain why whales strand, let’s continue to assume that our imaginary pod has suffered a pressure-related diving injury that has disabled their normally excellent sense of acoustic direction causing them to swim downstream with the flow with no real idea about where they are or where they are going.

What other consistent factual observations do we have that we can add to our assumption of echonavigation failure as the reason why whales strand?

Logical Truths #3: The two most consistent findings in a pod of beached whales is that they are dehydrated and have no fresh food in their stomachs. Sticking with the law of parsimony, the explanation that requires the least assumptions is that the pod lost its ability to feed itself a few weeks before it went ashore. This agrees with the loss of echonavigation because whatever caused the echo-navigation failure would also render the pod unable to echolocate its food. And since all the pod’s fresh water comes from the food they eat, the loss of biosonar function would explain both dehydration and no fresh food in their stomachs.

why whales strand
lost pilot whale spyhopping to avoid rocks

Here’s one more small clue. You will often see a lost whale raise its head out the water to look around like the one of the left. Notice that the tip of his snout is raw from running blindly into rocks.

There’s one more fact we could add. Beached whales and dolphins show up on the beach many times with the skin burnt off their backs. Obviously, they have spent many days in the burning hot sun even before they stranded. The only way this could happen is if they were swimming along on the surface for days in a calm sea. When we coupled the burnt back with loss of echonavigation, the dehydration, and no fresh food in the stomach, we get the picture that the pod is not diving to feed itself. This makes it easier to assume that the injury that knocked out their biosonar system was a diving-related pressure injury resulting in a sinus barotrauma that prevents them from diving.

So now we have a pod of lost whales that can not dive and feed themselves. If we go back to the law of parsimony, the simplest assumption is that our pod has encounter a series of rapid and excessive pressure changes (seaquakes more likely than not) that has ruptured one or two of the their many sinuses and small air sacs that make up their cranial air spaces. In other words, barotrauma in the cranial air spaces is the cause of the loss of biosonar and the ultimate reason why whales strand.

whales feed along mid-ocean ridges

Logical Truths #4: We know of six common sources of pressure disturbances that might cause sinus barotrauma in a pod of diving whales. Since whales have been mass stranding for millions of years, a few sources need to be ancient.  The three that immediately come to mind are seaquakes, volcanic explosions, and the rare time when a heavenly body slams into the water’s surface. The US Navy agrees with us on the natural seafloor disturbances. At least they did in 1966.

Modern sources of sinus barotrauma in whales would be military sonar, oil industry airguns, and underwater explosions. The US Navy agrees that these sources can injury whales, but they deny having any knowledge about how the injury might occur.

The above is the logical truth that forms the basis of our common sense solution to why whales strand themselves in mass.

You might also want to read:
A Far More Detailed Version of the Above Article
Navigation Failure in Mass Stranded Whales

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