by Capt. David Williams
(deafwhale at gmail.com)
How a Seaquake Injures a Pod of Diving Whales
The sudden force that causes the rocky seabed to jerk about during an undersea earthquake is not a massive single blow, but a series of wrenching snaps, as millions of tons of rock, twisted and strained out of shape by an accumulation of forces slowly exerted over centuries, suddenly lurches back toward an alignment that relieves the stress.
If these snap backs move vertically, as happens during both normal and reverse (thrust) faulting, and the hypocenter is only a few kilometers below the rock-water interface, the seabed will dance up and down like a gigantic piston many miles in diameter. This sudden up and down piston-like motion, sometimes lasting a minute or more, slams into the non-compressible water generating a series of extreme changes in ambient water pressure that move rapidly towards the surface at 1,500 meters per second.
On the other hand, strike-slip faulting does not normally generate dangerous seaquakes; however, there are instances along the sides of steep undersea mountains, and at the junctions of mid-ocean ridges with transform faults, when strike-slip events can indeed generate potent seaquakes. There are many more variables that must be considered in determining the danger of an undersea earthquakes. For example, on occasions, when the length of the seismic p-waves are longer than the distance from the hypocenter to the rock-water interface, seabed p-waves enter the water column as if there were no interface at all. Said differently, the acoustic barrier at the rock/water boundary disappears, allowing seismic p-waves to move from the solid crust to the hydrospace without distortion or energy loss. However, the depth of focus of seafloor earthquakes along mid-ocean ridges are usually defaulted to 10 kms below the ocean’s surface. In other words, there is no way to know key data separating dangerous from harmless events.
What is known is that the typical shallow earthquake along the mid-ocean ridge system generates a noise level of ~244 decibels (re:1 mPa). When converted to pounds per square inch, 244 dB equals 220 pounds per square inch or 15 atmospheres. The energy level drops quickly as the distance between pod and the seafloor increased.
On the other hand, some of the evidence is shocking. For example, NASA scientists calculated that two rare 7.5 magnitude quakes generated shock fronts ranging between 6 to 8 kilobars or ~100,000 pounds per square inch. See NASA-TM-X-66096, X-621-72-386: A possible shock effect associated with seaquakes for more information.
Major seaquakes can obviously turned large ships into hunks of scrap metal (link).
Discounting the fact that p-waves from extremely shallow events can pass directly into the water column, the amplitude of the changing pressure in a moderate seaquake is directly related to the rate of acceleration coupled with the vertical distance traveled by the upsurging seabed. This is because slower upsurge allows the water time to flow horizontally before any great pressure builds.
During a typical shallow magnitude 6 earthquake with rapid acceleration, the increase in water pressure might reach ~2,000 pounds per square inch (psi) above ambient. When the seabed suddenly snaps back to its non-disturbed position, the sudden downward jerk, creates a negative pressure pulse called a rarefaction phase. When the seafloor is tapdancing fast, a series of intense low frequency (LF) hydroacoustic compressions and decompressions shoot up towards the surface four times faster than sound travels in air. The frequency of these pressure changes range from -2 to 100 cycles per second, averaging about 7 cps.
These seismically-generated pressure disturbances were commonly known hundreds of years ago as seaquakes. Scientists now call them by a mixed bag of non-descriptive names with T-phase waves being the closest fit.
What if a Sudden Surge in water Pressure Catches a Pod of Diving Whales by Surprise?
Rapid changing diving pressures is the worst nightmare come true for a pod of odontoceti down deep on a feeding dive.
During exposure, the volume of air contained in the flexible air pockets inside their large heads increase and decrease in lockstep with the ongoing seaquake pressure oscillations. While the volume of air inside the sinuses and air sacs is rapidly changing, the volume of the nearby non-compressible bones, internal organs, muscles, fat, and blood remains the same. The fluctuation at the membranous interface between the flexible air spaces and the stationary anatomical parts establishes shearing forces that can easily induce barosinusitis, barotitis media, labyrinthine fistula, and other pressure-related diving injuries similar to sinus barotrauma, the most common injury in human scuba divers. (medical abstract on barotrauma)
Moreover, the air contained inside their cranial air sacs, which are situated in the space between and around their two cochleas, serves to isolate one inner ear from the other, and to reduce the perceived level of the animal’s own echo navigating clicks. This acoustic isolation and insulation of the two ears allows odontoceti to hear independently in each ear. If stereoscopic reception fails so does their echolocation and echonavigation. Even a slight interference in one ear would be disastrous for acoustically dependent odontoceti. Biosonar requires two balanced independent receptors.
Since their cranial air spaces function both underwater as acoustic mirrors and to isolate one cochlea from the other, a simple tear in one sinus or air sac might easily result in the dysfunction of echolocation and echonavigation.
This researcher is not the first to suggest an injury in the cranial air sinuses and air sacs would destroy echonavigation in toothed whales. Dr. Peter Purves, the famous whale curator at the British Museum of Natural History wrote: “It is very easy to imagine a condition in which the air-sac system has broken down, so that it is no longer reflecting, and, with the isolation of the essential organs of hearing disrupted, the animal may lose its sense of direction.” (link)
In fact, his short comment is the most important key to unraveling the centuries-old enigma of why pods of whales mass beach themselves. He might even have solved the mystery in the 1960s if he would have known that shallow seabed quakes generate potent waves of changing pressures that could easily bust a few air sacs in each member of a diving pod. Click on the link above and read his words over and over again. He was one of the world’s most talented whale scientists.
It is also postulated herein that fewer pods stranded a hundred years ago because the oceans were not so noisy. In my opinion, the quiet sea allowed feeding pods to hear micro-quake precursors in time to surface and raise their air-filled heads out of the water. If this is indeed true, seaquakes alone might eventually cause the collapse of pelagic odontoceti populations.
Click here to read a more about seaquake-induced navigation failure in pelagic odontoceti.
Stranded Whales Have No Sense of Direction
Watch the short video below: Notice the NOAA whale scientists suggesting that a healthy pod follows a sick one to the shore because they are so much in love with each other. I will show you later why this is a false notion.
The announcer closes by asking, “What could have possibly disoriented them?” The answer is that most mass beached pods are suffering a sinus injury as outline above.
What I am about to show you now is how pods of seaquake-injured whales consistently swim from the point of injury to a beach without a functional biosonar system. I consider this factual information to be the second most important clue to unraveling this mystery.
Watch this video (link) in which Myth Busters blindfold themselves and try to swim across a calm lake. It shows how difficult it is to maintain a straight course even when there is no surface currents.
But understanding the difficulty in swimming a straight line without a sense of direction does not show how seaquake-injured pods swim from their offshore feeding grounds and consistently show up on a sandy beach.
But before we sort out which way a pod of disorientated whales and dolphins might swim we need to consider two facts:
(1) The busted sinuses that causes pods to mass strand, also prevents them from diving and feeding themselves due to great pain. Even if they could dive, visually locating squid and fish in the dark waters of the deep sea would be impossible. The evidence that they are not diving and feeding is found in every necropsy done of mass stranded whales–their stomachs contain only squid beaks and the ear bones of fish they were eating before they were injured. And since their fresh water comes from the food they eat, the severe dehydration found in each member of the pod is even more evidence that they are not feeding. To counter these obvious facts, scientists claim they vomit before going ashore but no one has seen such behavior. Furthermore, if they did, the squid beaks and fish ear bones would come up with the vomitus.
(2) The eyes of the pilot and false killer whales, the most frequent mass stranders, are set on the sides rather than the front of their heads. They can not see in front of them, which explains why they use biosonar exclusively in navigation and finding fish in the dark. On the other hand, dolphins with pointed beaks have much better eyesight looking forward. The question is why don’t they use their eyesight to stay out of the pounding surf? Several answers come to mind. For one, average stranding does not occur until ~3 weeks after the suspicious seaquakes. It is likely that they can avoid a beaching by using their eyes (spyhopping) until the combination of severe dehydrated and vitamin depleted weakens their eyes. Vision would also be defeated as they neared a rough beach where sand and bubbles were being injected into the water by the breaking waves. It is thought that weaken vision would be of no value in staying off the beach at night. This might explain why most stranded pods are discovered early in the morning by the first visitors to the area.
(3) You also need to know that water is 830 times more dense than air.
Now imagine you are blind, walking in open field during a powerful windstorm. Without a visual marker to focus on, you would soon be walking downwind in the path of least resistance. The same applies in water; but the force of water is much stronger the the force of wind. Swimming blind into a 3-knot current is about the same as walking blind into hurricane force winds..
But let’s be a bit more scientific. We know from Newton’s first law that thrust is required to cause our pod to move through calm waters. If thrust was the only force applicable, a lost pod would continuously accelerate. However, this never happens because thrust is always countered by drag forces that push back against any forward movement. The faster a pod swims in a calm sea, the greater becomes the drag forces trying to slow them down.
But rarely are the surface currents calm so we must consider the difference between swimming downstream and swimming upstream. If the current flows in the same direction a pod is swimming, drag forces are greatly reduced making it much easier for them to swim downstream. On the other hand, if our pod is swimming upstream against the current, drag forces increase drastically. Since our lost pod has no guidance system or visual marker to focus on, they will not be able to hold a steady upstream compass heading against the increasing drag forces. Bottom line is that drag, without our acoustically blind whales even being aware, will turn a lost pod and point them downstream in the path of the fastest moving current. (read this detail article confirming that whales are guided ashore by surface currents)
In fact, drag force will constantly keep a lost pod swimming downstream in the filament of current that is flowing the fastest. Said differently, if lost whales swim in a major current, like the Gulf Stream, they will be guided into the fast lane since this is the path of least drag. They would also be carried close to land whenever a fast-moving filament spins off from the main stream and moves inshore.
One can tell when the filament spin-offs from the main flow by observing the color change in coastal waters. The waters near the beach becomes a much deeper, cleaner-looking blue. You can often spot the blue water at mass beachings if you arrive soon after the event occurs.
Bottom line is that beachings are only when the current guides an acoustically blind pod in too close to a sandy shore at the same time the tidal flow is washing in and the wind is blowing towards shore. The beach will look a lot like the one of the right. Such conditions make for perfect stranding weather. Don’t take my word for it. Become a mass stranding investigator and confirm oceanic condition when beachings occur by watching videos taken early during a stranding. Here are a few showing the wind and weather condition during a stranding (link) (link) (link) (link) (link).
And, just the opposite is true. Whales will NEVER strand when there is no shoreward flow as you see in the picture on the right. The point here is that if I prove to you that mass beached whales and dolphins are always swimming with the flow of the surface currents when they go ashore, then I have proven that they have no sense of direction whatsoever. NO SENSE OF DIRECTION is the key to unraveling the centuries-old mystery of why whales mass strand. Failure to observe the surface currents is the main reason whale scientists could never solve the mystery and why a sea captain could. I can glace out across a body of water and tell you in seconds which way the water is flowing. Surface currents expose the biosonar failure in mass beached whales and dolphins.
Furthermore, geographical land masses that extended out to sea with a hook-shape, opposing the flow of the usual current, like Cape Cod in the USA and Golden Bay in New Zealand, are natural sand traps simply because current is the energy that carries each grain of sand to build and maintain a beach. These hooked-shaped land masses also trap any lost whales swimming with flow.
It is the same no matter where you look. Any land mass that oppose the general flow of the current will trap sand, lost whales (dead or alive), sea weeds, logs, and other floating trash. You can often find also sorts of flotsam at stranding sites.
Imagine how our lost pod might feel. They can hear each other, but the seaquake has destroyed their acoustic sense of direction. If they want to know what’s 10 to 20 feet away in murky water, they must raise their big heads high out of the water and look around with they eyes.
The video below shows a pod of seaquake-injured, non-navigating pilot whales near the Icelandic Coast. There is a strong current washing from the right side of the screen to the left; the same direction that the pod is swimming. Notice the abnormal close spacing of this LOST pod. If interpreted correctly, these telltale observations reveal echonavigation failure. Notice also that individuals are raising their heads to see if they are too close to the rocky shore. Scientists call this spyhopping.
Now take a quick look at a healthy pod of pilot whales and notice the big difference.
Now go back and look at another seaquake-injured pod with no sense of direction. Watch them milling around inside a backwater bay, raising their big heads high, trying to use their eyesight to stay off the rocks and find a way back to deep water. There is a strong wind blowing from right to left. Tidal flow is slowing moving to the right, opposing the wind. Spyhopping is common for acoustically blind pods. They obviously know their sonar is not working.
The above videos reveal erratic abnormal behavior in pods not yet stranded. It is obvious that all the members of the pod are highly distressed, not just one or two sick ones. All the pod members were injured at the same time by the same seaquake. They are LOST and they know it.
The fact that most stranded pods are found early in the morning by the first visitors to the beach tells us that most pods strand at night when using spyhopping techniques to stay off the beach don’t work so good.
On rare occasion, when storms cause an extraordinary strong shoreward flow, a lost pod might even be washed into a rocky coast. Or, they might get drawn into a backwater lagoon through an inlet by the inrush of water during a rising tide. Once inside the shallow backwater lagoons, lost whales would mill around until their bellies touch the muddy bottom. They would then find it difficult to raise up high enough to spy-hop the channel. They would be left struck in the mud at low tide, which is exactly what happens.
If pushed from the beach when the surface currents are flowing in towards the sand, non-navigating whales and dolphins will be turned back to the beach by the shoreward flow, which is also exactly what has been gong on ever since man started pushing them off the beach. Rescue teams have learned thru trial and error that they must refloat acoustically blind whales only when the tidal current is flowing out towards to deep water. They usually move the whales out to waist deep water and hold them there until the falling tides starts washing out to deeper water. Sometimes they release too soon or the whales breaks away from their grip. When this happens, the poor whales starts swimming fast and just turns around and heads back to shore. If there happens to be rocks nearby, the ACOUSTICALLY BLIND WHALES continuously bang into the rocks in a BLIND craze. I have never seen a video that offers more PROOF of lost echonavigation any better than the one below.
On the other hand, when the weather kicks up a strong shoreward wind that overpowers the tides flowing back out to sea, waiting on the tide to drop before releasing the whales is a waste of time. Refloating in such a condition is impossible so the rescue teams put them to sleep or shoot them in the head as revealed in the video below:
That beached odontoceti can not swim out to deep water when the surface currents are washing shoreward is a telltale sign indicating biosonar failure. Rescue teams know by trial and error that there is no hope for a successful refloat during a strong shoreward flow. Whales with dysfunctional biosonar can not swim against even into a slight current, let alone heavy breakers. Instead of killing them, some rescue teams will load them on trucks and carry them to a distance beach on the opposite shore where the wind and tide is blowing out to sea. The video below is a perfect example of the inventive ways rescue groups use to get acoustically blind whales to swim offshore to the waiting sharks.
If there is no flowing current, the whales will mill around in shallow water as you can see in the video below that was taken from a helicopter. It shows the whales swimming/milling around in a slack current. It is obvious that the lost pod has no idea which way to swim.
The fact that stranded whales always swim downstream with the flow of the surface current is clear and unmistakable evidence of biosonar failure. The most logical explanation that fits with the million-year history of mass strandings is pressure-related sinus barotrauma induced by a natural catastrophic event in their backyard. In the order of most likely first, barosinusitis in odontocetes can be caused by seaquakes, violent volcanic eruptions, underwater explosions, navy sonar, oil industry airguns, and the rare time when a heavenly body slams into the ocean’s surface near a pod of whales.
Why Do Whale Scientists Say?
They repeatedly say that healthy toothed whales strand during heavy seas because the incoming waves kick up the sand causing acoustic interference with their biosonar signals. Or, when the seas are not so rough, they say biosonar does not work on a gradually sloping beach. Both concepts are easily refuted. Odontoceti are intelligent animals. They would have learned many millions of years ago not to swim near a beach when the waves kick up the sand and block both their eyesight and their echonavigation. Come on folks, toothed whales are just not that stupid. Dolphins will not even jump over a rope floating on the surface because it distorts their biosonar; they would NEVER swim into a rough-sea condition where the sand and bubbles block all their senses of direction. These mammals have thrived for 50 million years in stormy seas and would instinctively know to swim to deep offshore waters long before the storm kicked up. They would naturally avoid shallow beaches until the weather improves. If they didn’t, they would have gone the way of the Dodo Bird a long, long time ago.
Bet your life that healthy dolphins know how to have fun offshore during heavy seas.
When scientists say that both sand and sloping beaches interfere with their biosonar system and cause strandings, they are admitting that beaching are the result of biosonar failure. The question is: why do they emphasize sand and a sloping beach while excluding other more obvious causes of biosonar failure like deafness and sinus barotrauma? Why do we never hear them even mention barotrauma? These sea mammals have massive air sinuses and are the most prolific deep sea divers the world will ever known. I find it hard to believe that scientists would think that they never suffer a diving-related pressure injury. To me, saying whales don’t have diving accidents is like saying man never stumps his toe.
Study the pictures above and the one at the top of this website. This is typical mass beaching weather. Notice the raging sea in the background. You can tell that there is a strong shoreward wind setting up the breaking waves. You can also tell that the whales were washed up the beach by the high tide and left in the sand when the tide dropped. Obviously, the biosonar systems of the entire pod has failed for some reason.
Stranded Whales and Dolphins Can be Saved
As you will see in the video below, stranded pods can be rehabilitated if protect from shark attack for 3-4 weeks, given plenty of fresh fluids, and fed lots of fish and squid. The question is will governments spend the money?
For example, when asked about seaquakes causing whales strandings, a whale enthusiasts wrote: “I would speculate that strandings have more to do with the United States Navy than anything else. The studies and proof is there. I believe they are doing more damage in the name of national defense than underwater earthquakes. I only believe this because quakes have been happening since the beginning of time. Although they might have great impact. Whales have evolved along side of this whereas the Navy has only really been using sonar.”
This commenter is suggesting that because earthquakes were around long before whales moved back into the sea, they must have evolved a means of dealing with seaquakes. To a certain degree, this is true. I believe that fewer pods stranded a hundred years ago because the oceans were not so noisy. In my opinion, the quiet sea allowed feeding pods to hear micro-quake precursors in time to swim to the surface and raise their air-filled heads out of the water.
I would also counter the comment by saying that archeological finds show that whales have been mass stranding since the stone age, and likely long time before man even walked upright. This fact alone rules out Navy sonar as the primary cause of mass beachings. I might even go so far as to suggest that seaquake-injured pods would be especially vulnerable to sonar and oil industry airgun arrays simply because that can not determine which way to swim to avoid these devices. The surface flow might carry them directing into the path of the ships emitting dangerous acoustic signals.
One reason I don’t fault sonar and airguns so much is because diving whales a long distances to these devices have the option to swim off in a different direction long before the intensity gets so loud that they are injured. Of course, this does not prevent a sonar of airgun arrays from trapping a pod inside a cove where they have no way to swim to avoid serious trauma.
I have located upstream earthquakes prior to every stranding supposedly due to sonar.
I might also add that a few hundred years ago undersea earthquakes might have served an important evolutionary purpose.
Allow me to explain: In the 1700s and 1800s there were so many whales and dolphins feeding along sections of the mid-ocean ridge that there was a good chance they could overgraze and deplete the local squid breeding stock. For this reason, the removal of a few pods every so often by a seaquake was an evolutionary advantage, especially since most pods survived.
They recovered from their injuries because the wounded would swim downstream with the surface flow for 2-3 weeks, feeding every so often on one of the numerous schools of small fish they easily caught on the surface. The surface was teaming with schools of small fish, giving injured pods a chance to feed several times every day just by swimming through packed schools with their mouths wide open.
Eventually, with plenty of food and fresh water, seaquake-injured pods recovered.
Since their biosonar was rendered temporarily dysfunctional by the seaquake, they had no acoustical memory of how to get back to their old feeding grounds. They had to find new habitat.
This meant that seaquakes served evolution prior to the 19th Century because they thinned the pods from the mid-ocean ridges and spread the species around the world at the same time.
This was when drive fisheries for small whales began to flourish. At first, there were plenty of wounded pods looking for a new habitat so the drive fisheries did little damage. At about the same time, oceanic trawlers began removing the massive schools of small fish that the whales relied on for recovery.
As the surface schools became depleted, more whales started stranding and pod sizes slowly got smaller until we have the situation today when the removal of pods by seaquakes alone threatens to eliminate the breeding stock and cause the extinction of pelagic toothed whales.
There are thing that we can do to change this situation.
I do believe that many whale species can detect earthquake precursors. If we study how they do it, we might be able to duplicate these signal and cause them to flee from both sonar and commercial operations. But we have a long way to go to get the US Navy to agree on such a plan. They are far more interested is control marine science than they are in saving whales.
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