The Real Reason Pods of Whales Strand in Mass



why whales strand
typical sea state during mass stranding

The Logical Truth!

Logical truths can not be considered untrue and
no situation can arise to cause us to reject them.

by Capt. David Williams
2013 science article about whale strandings (free PDF file)
seaquake solutions to previous whale mass strandings

Logical Truth #1:  In 1966, the US Navy revealed the real reason why whales strand when they tried to warn the public 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.  They added in the left column of page 59: “MARINE LIFE CAN BE DESTROYED BY A SEAQUAKE.”

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

My 50-year research effort to solve the centuries-old mystery of why pods of whales strand in mass has indeed convinced me that the US Navy is right. Seaquakes can 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. And 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.

The question is, if the Navy knew in 1966 that seaquakes could kill and injure marine life, why didn’t they give scientists some money to investigated whether a seaquake might explain why 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). Why didn’t these scientists try to figure out how an seaquake might jam a whale’s echo-navigation system? One small science article suggesting that seaquakes could answer the question of why do whales strand might have led other scientists to do a little more research. After all, it does seem like a simple idea. If a seaquake could injure an entire pod of sperm whales and cause them to lose their acoustic sense of direction, then there would be no centuries-old mystery about why do whales strand on sandy beaches.

Occam’s razor, also known as the law of parsimony, is a problem-solving principle devised by William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347), who was an English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher and theologian. The principle states that among competing hypotheses that predict equally well, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.

Since the US Navy has already confirmed that seaquakes kill marine life, 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 most-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 will 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.

That the swim path of stranded whales is being controlled by the surface currents was noticed by Dr. Dan Odell in 1982. He said he felt current patterns play a big part in why do whales strand. He also notice that when strandings occur along Florida’s East Coast, there was an unusual inland swing to the Gulf Stream. 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).

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 high that they will directed to a beach, which is why asking why whales strand is the same as asking why whales beach.

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 of the current 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 that the current was always washing to 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 is 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 away from the beach.

Thus, for the purpose of modeling our hypothesis of 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 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 Occam’s razor, the explanation that requires the least assumptions is that the pod lost its ability to feed itself at least two 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. 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 Occam’s razor, the simplest assumption is that our pod has encounter a series of rapid and excessive pressure changes (seaquake 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 maybe 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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