Whale Beaching Theories To Explain Why Whales Mass Beach
by Capt. David Williams
Any Acceptable Whale Beaching Theory Must Account For All The Consistent Observations
(1) Pelagic odontocete (toothed whales and dolphins that live in deep offshore waters) have been mass stranding, mostly on beaches, for millions of years; thus, any whale beaching theory that ties this mystery to modern man must be rejected unless a direct association can be shown between modern practices and historical phenomena. For example, the Seaquake Whale Beaching Theory easily accounts for both ancient and current mass stranding by suggesting that undersea earthquakes, volcanic explosions, military sonar, oil industry air cannons, and explosives all generate rapid and excessive changes in diving pressure that can and do induce sinus barotrauma in diving mammals. Since the cranial air spaces of odontocete serve an acoustic function (link), sinus barotrauma in these air sacs and sinuses can disable biosonar.
(2) Species of whales and dolphins that mass strand feed primarily on squid often spending much of their time above seismically active mid-oceanic ridge system where the squid breed and lay their eggs. This area is usually free of navy sonar, seismic airguns, and undersea explosions. On the other hand, species not known to mass strand do not spend lots of time in seismically-active waters. They hang out is areas often visited by seismic survey ships and navy warships.
(3) Species know to mass strand live in tight social groups. Individuals are extremely afraid of being attacked by sharks when alone. For this reason, they require close social contact and are seldom observed more than several hundred meters from the center of the pod. On the other hand, species that form loose pods in coastal waters, in which two or three individuals are often found several miles from the pod center, never mass strand.
(4) Mass strandings occur usually at night and only when the tide is rising and the wind is blowing the surface currents towards the shore; however, most stranded pods are not discovered until the next morning by the first visitors to the beach. This is easily verifiable by looking at hundreds of pictures (link) and videos (link) online. The tide often falls by the time someone takes a picture. The stranded animals are then left high and dry at the high tide mark. This indicates that beached whales are guided to the beach at night by strong shoreward flow. On the other hand, whales never stand when the wind is calm and the tide is flowing out to sea.
(5) Live-stranded pod members appear outwardly healthy; however, postmortem examinations reveal dehydration, starvation, and a multitude of bacterial, viral and parasitic infections. It is obvious from medical examinations that all the adult members of the pod are ill, not just one or two pod leaders.
(6) The nursing young are usually in far better health than the adults, and can often be more easily rehabilitated.
(7) Stranded whales are successfully pushed back out to sea only when the tidal currents are flowing towards deep water and when there are no stormy waves and currents washing ashore, opposing the outflow of the tidal current. When the waves are breaking in the surf zone and the seas are flowing ashore, the only successful method of refloating stranded whales is to transport them overland to a beach with a favorable outflow to the current.
(8) Mass strandings occur repeatedly along certain shores while other similar shores seldom record such events. Any acceptable theory must explain why whales live strand so often at Cape Sorrel, Tasmania, Golden Bay, New Zealand, and Cape Cod in the USA.
(9) Drive fisheries for dolphins, such as those in the Faeroe Islands and in Japan, in which pods of dolphin are driven by small boats onto the shore and then slaughter in a bloody massacre originated in areas where pods most often stranded. Thus, there is a close association between mass stranded whales and those slaughtered in the drive fisheries. Could the fishermen injured pods predestine to strand anyway?
(10) Mass strandings most often occur at locations where large geographical land masses extend out to sea opposing the flow of current. Prime examples included Golden Bay and Chatham Islands, New Zealand, Cape Sorrel, Tasmania, and Cape Cod Bay in the USA.
(11) Most major stranding sites around the world show a peak stranding season usually lasting ~90 days. Strandings seldom occur at these repeat locations outside of this limited time frame.
(12) Mass strandings generally occur on gentle shelving beaches and do not occur on rocky shores or mud flats or in areas where sand is not accumulating unless the stranding occurs in backwater areas inside an inlet. Obviously whales are not going to strand where the water is not shallow enough to stop their forward progress so it could be said that a gentle shelving beach is the only area that would naturally trap whales. Rocky shorelines and beaches that drop off too fast usually have ample depth to allow a small toothed whale to swim, preventing a stranding in these areas. However, there are thousands upon thousands of miles of mud flats and mangrove shorelines where the water is only a few inches deep for many miles out to the open sea, yet whales never mass strand in these locations unless there is a sandy beach or sand accumulation.
(13) When push back to sea, stranded animals often return to shore, or are found re-stranded further downstream from the original site.
(14) Beached whales are most often sighted in the early morning by the first visitors to the stranding site indicating that beachings tend to occur at night. On the other hand, strandings that occur inside an inlet or bay, and in backwater areas, generally occur during low tide when the water recedes from under whales.
Whale Beaching Theories
(1) The idea that mass stranded whales follow a sick leader into shallow water was first proposed in the 1940’s by Dr. Leonard Gill, the director of the South African Museum. Even though this concept is quickly dismissed by a stranding event in which small groups of animals from the same pod strand at different times over a period of several days, the idea is still promoted at every stranding. Folks wonder where the leader is when whales from the same pod are found scattered along a 20-mile stretch of beach. This theory offers no explanation for season variations in stranding patterns, no reason why there is an increase in night strandings, no explanation for why re-floated pods often re-strand downstream, no reason why strandings do not occur in heavy seas, nor why all the adult members of the pod are usually seriously ill. Besides, suicide over sickness in a leader violates all know evolutionary principals.
However, according to 1,000-plus online newspaper articles about stranded whales, and a hundred different videos like the one below, whale scientists still repeat this old concept over and over again. They say that these pod leaders and/or navigators go ashore because they can no longer stay afloat. Following-the-leader theory first surfaced in newspapers during the 1880s.
The problem with this theory is that there is a far better way to explain why the pod appears to be following a leader.
Suppose the pod is injured in some fashion that caused them to loss their acoustic sense of direction. Never mind the exact injury, just follow along assuming that the pod is lost.
Hungry oceanic sharks are drawn to the injury pod by the smell of blood, urine, feces, and body fluids deposited in the water by the overly-stressed whales. The sharks can even feel the whale’s heart beat from a hundred feet away. Sharks have been predators of whales for millions of years. They know when a pod is in trouble; they swim behind them, down current where the smell of body fluids is the strongest. They are waiting to rip apart any slow swimmer that falls behind. In other words, sharks will cull the weakest whales and dolphins long before they reach the beach. Only those pod members with slight physical injuries will survive long enough to strand and escape the sharks.
Fear of being the next whale torn to pieces by a pack of starving sharks will cause each individual to initiate behavior solely directed towards self-preservation. These dying mammals are not so much in love with their pod mates that they would surrender their own lives. They are wild animals with a very strong sense of self-preservation… it’s natures way.
To recognize this selfish behavior in whales and dolphins, we need to know a little about behavior in a selfish herd. As applied to herds on the plains of Africa, the individual risk that they will be taken by a predator is greatest on the outside of the herd and decreases towards the center. More dominant herding animals will obtain a low-risk central positions, whereas, subordinates will be forced into higher risk outside positions. Again… this is also nature’s way.
Something similar is true for an injured herd of whales and dolphins constantly swimming downstream. However, the greatest risk from shark attack is not around the outside of the pod. The greatest danger is to the animals bringing up the rear because the sharks are smelling the waters, trailing from behind and picking off any stragglers. This means that the least-injured members of the selfish pod will swim in front of the pod, furthest away from the trailing sharks.
This is not an example of a “strong social bond”. Rather, it is a perfect example of selfish herd behavior as outlined is this 1971 science article entitled “Geometry for the Selfish Herd” by W. D. Hamilton.
Instead of protecting the young and other pod members by taking a position between the sharks and the rest of the pod, the non-navigating selfish pod leaders, wanting to save their own butts, will be the first to go ashore because they are usually out front while the surface currents are guiding the lost whales ashore. The rest of the pod will follow in a blind-following-the-blind fashion because they are being guided by the same current. This will create the illusion that the pod is following a sick pod mate or leader due to strong social cohesion.
Selfish herd behavior has been overlooked by whale experts even though self-preservation is an almost universal hallmark of life. Instead, scientists say that a healthy pod is following one or two sick members to the beach. When the pod does not leave the beaching area right away, the scientists often say that pod members will not leave a sick member behind because they have such a strong social attachment.
Just the opposite is true.
The truth is that the entire pod has lost its sense of direction and, those not beached, will mill around near where their pod members are still stuck in the sand for two reasons: (a) the lingering whales believe the sharks are waiting just offshore, and (b) the current near shore is often slack and, with no current, the whales have no sense of direction. When the tidal flow does start to wash back to deep water, the rescuers know they must push most of the whales out to sea at the same time because no whale wants to be first to meet up with the jaws of death.
One other point about the sharks… they will not attack the collective herd (pod) because healthy toothed whales and dolphins have ways of protecting themselves. A few pod members can distract the sharks while others swim down and come up like a rocket, ramming the sharks in the liver. The massive liver of a shark is its most vulnerable spot and the whales know it. The sharks do not know the injured whales cannot defend themselves so they use caution and wait until a single whales swims off by itself. The whales know this, which explains why they will not swim away for the beach alone. This means that the real value in pushing the lost whales back out to deep water is to feed the starving sharks and save a lot of money that would otherwise be spent burying the carcasses.
(2) Two geo-biologists suggested that the lost pods are following magnetic clues in a form of magnetic “dead” reckoning and accidentally run aground when this magnetic path crosses a shoreline. To make their theory workable, these scientists suggest that toothed whales might be able to use the earth’s magnetic field as an aide to navigation and might strand if this system fails. In other words, this theory creates an imaginary mode of navigation and then uses the failure of what was imagined as an explanation for the beachings.
According to Klinowska, all whale strandings in Britain occur where magnetic field contours are perpendicular (90% right angles) to the shoreline. Since it is a known fact that all mass strandings occur on beaches, then it must hold true that magnetic field contours are perpendicular to the shoreline in areas where beaches are located. What about beaches where the contour lines are at 45% angles or at 30% angles to the shoreline? In fact, if the stranded pods were indeed following the magnetic contours as suggested, then they could just as easily be mislead to strand where the angles were only 10% or 20%.
According to Klinowska, strandings are also correlated with irregular changes in the magnetic field caused by the sun. She would have us believe that mass stranded whales use the total geomagnetic field of the Earth as a map. An imagined geomagnetic timer in the brain allows the whales to monitor their position both night and day because the geomagnetic field changes when the sun comes up. They are not using the directional information of the Earth’s magnetic field as we do with our compasses. Rather, they supposedly use small relative differences in the total local field that changes hourly, which explains why they need the imaginary timer.
Klinowska arrived at this explanation after an alleged detailed analysis of the records of strandings in Britain.
But two groups working separately in Newfoundland and New Zealand have failed to duplicate Klinowska’s work. Other scientists who repeated the same geomagnetic studies failed to confirm the stranding patterns suggested. Still the press continues to report use of geomagnetic sense in whales regardless that most studies show this idea to be merely imagined. In other words, there is nothing to support a failed geomagnetic sense of direction as why the whales ended their lives on the beach yet the press still continues to hang on to this irrational idea because they have been bamboozled with the use of fancy terminology in support of scientific nonsense. Basically, it boils down to only one thing, if a scientists says its so then the press will usually print it whether it makes sense or not.
Klinowska said, “The total magnetic field of the Earth is not uniform. It is distorted (along the seafloor near mid-oceanic ridges) by the underlying geology, forming a topography of magnetic ‘hills and valleys.’ My analysis shows that the animals move along the contours of these magnetic slopes, and that in certain circumstances this can lead them to strand themselves.” Klinowska never tracked any whales to show her analysis; she simply assumed the pods moved along the contours because it fit her idea of a failing compass.
But rather than assume the pods move along the magnetic contours, it seems far more rational to assume that they are moving along the mid-oceanic spreading ridges following the squid, their favorite food. It just happens that the magnetic patterns flow along this ridge. If the patterns flowed at right angles to the ridge, the whales would then be swimming along at right angles and the geo-biologists would adjust their theory accordingly.
Klinowska also said, “In the oceans, sea-floor spreading has produced a set of almost parallel hills and valleys. Whales could use these as “undersea motorways” but might swim into problems when they came near the shore, because the magnetic contours do not stop at the beach. They continue onto the land, and sometimes so do the whales.” This statement is shown to be pure nonsense in Iceland, which has one of the largest populations of the species known to mass strand in the world. The seafloor spreading ridge moves from the ocean floor through the very center of Iceland as does the geo-magnetic contour lines yet Iceland is not known as a mass stranding area. The same thing holds true in other areas where the mid-oceanic spreading ridges run directly onshore.
In addition, why would the whales struggle with the magnetic contours as a means to follow the mid-ocean spreading centers since these areas are seismically speaking one of the noisiest places on Earth. Using magnetic patterns to track such noise would be like man uses a magnetic signature to tell when a freight train was passed by.
If the geo-magnetic contour lines are leading the pods to strand on the beach, then how does one account for no mass strandings where we know the lines run straight into the shore and where we know there is a large population of the species known to be mass stranders?
Klinowska insists that, in addition to stranding because of land-intersecting contours, unpredictable daily changes in the earth’s magnetic field can upset the whales’ imagined timing mechanism, causing them to lose their true position on their magnetic dead-reckoning maps. “Magnetically speaking, they become lost.” But why would the whales use magnetism in broad daylight when all they had to do was glance at the shoreline. In other words, these geo-biologists have imagined a timing mechanism in the brain of the whales and then imagined that the mechanism is always going on the blink.
Joseph L. Kirschvink, of the California Institute of Technology, has plotted hundreds of beachings of whales and dolphins along the U.S. East Coast. He finds that whales tend to run aground at spots where the earth’s magnetic field is diminished by the local magnetic fields of rocks and grains of sand. These coastal magnetic lows are at the ends of long, continuous channels of magnetic minima that run for great distances along the ocean floors. Kirschvink believes that the stranded whales and dolphins were using these magnetic troughs for navigation and failed to see the stop sign at the beaches and ran aground. The magnetic troughs in this view are superhighways for animals equipped with a magnetic sense. If Kirschvink is correct, the magnetic sensors of the whales and dolphins are extremely sensitive because the deepest magnetic troughs are only about 4% weaker than the background magnetic field.
Kirschvink suggest that different species of whales follow different levels of magnetism. However, using the concept of different species preferring differing strengths of magnetism tends to force the stranding sites to fit the data.
Efforts to duplicate Kirschvink indicate no such geo-magnetic stranding pattern. Besides, a system of navigation that leads healthy whales to their death does not fit evolutionary processes. For healthy animals to swim blindly into a beach due to “wrong way” geo-magnetic clue, other known forms of navigation (vision, biosonar, taste and etc) would all have to fail. In addition, a failed geo-magnetic compass offers no explanation for seasonal variations in stranding patterns, no reason why there is an increase in night strandings, no explanation for why re-floated pods often re-strand downstream, no reason why strandings do not occur in heavy seas, nor why all the adult members of the pod are found seriously ill. In addition, magnetite crystals (found in birds, fish, and insects) necessary for a magnetic sense of some sort, so far have not been found in whales and dolphins.
(3) A new alternate theory was recently advanced by researchers at the University of Tasmania’s department of marine biology who suggested that mass strandings in their area are cyclical and caused by westerly winds increasing in strength every 12 years over the Southern Ocean. Marine biologist Dr. Karen Evans said the study shows strandings in New Zealand and Australia have a 12-year cycle, peaking in 2005. She says cyclical westerly and southerly winds pushed sub-Antarctic waters north, drawing colder, nutrient-rich waters needed by whales and dolphins closer to the surface. Basically, Dr. Evans is saying that 12-year wind patterns carries nutrient rich waters inshore which in turn draws more whales into shallow water increasing a chance of accidental stranding. The suggestion of accidental stranding is where this theory fails measurably. Accidental groundings just do not hold with thousands of medical examinations showing the animals have been near death for several weeks before they hit the beach. Still, the idea that mass strandings may increase during periods of increase in wind speed does have some merit. An increase in southwestern surface waves would indeed carry more seaquake-injured pods north toward New Zealand and Australia. There is also an annual increase in surface currents moving toward the beaches in New Zealand and Australia in October thru January. This increase in shoreward surface current accounts for a seasonal increase in strandings during this period. There is also evidence that higher waves on the oceans surface increase the number of earthquakes in the seabed.
(4) In 1934, a scientist with the British Museum of natural History, F. C. Fraser–considering a stranding of false killer whales–suggested that inflow of water from the North Atlantic guided the whales to the shallow parts of the eastern coast of England and Scotland. He refers to another scientist who reported a strong southwesterly wind when a large school of false killers went ashore at Mamre, France. Frazer thought these strong winds might have caused a shift in currents, bringing Atlantic waters into the shallows around Mamre. He argues that oceanic species, such as false killers, are not familiar with, and easily strand in shallow waters. He also indicates that the nature of the shore might be critical since the spots where the strandings most often occur are shallow, gentle-shelving, sandy coastlines. Fraser offers a lot of insight in this article, but no real reason for why oceanic species should be so easily pulled into the shallows by the current. W. H. Dudok Van Heel, a scientist from the Netherlands Institute of Sea Research, assumed that Fraser meant that the current brought squid, the favorite food of offshore toothed whales, into the shallows and the whales were simply following their food. But there is nothing in the record that indicates that this is indeed what Fraser meant.
Fraser never intended this to be a stranding theory — he was only making a valid observation to indicate that mass stranded whales might have been traveling along with the flow of the current prior to stranding, which agrees with the Seaquake Theory.
(5) In 1962, Dudok Van Heel advanced his own theory suggesting the gentle-shelving beaches presented a sonar problem for the whales. He theorized that a whale’s sonar beam would not be reflected back to the whale due to the shelving shape of the beach. Therefore, if a pod of whales, either accidentally or while aggressively following their prey, wandered into shallow gentle shelving waters, they could easily strand, especially if they panicked. Those that re-stranded after being set free were used as examples of the continued failure of sonar due to shallow gentle-shelving beach. This theory fails to account for most observations, especially the ill health of the pod members. But this theory still remains popular because it allows those who make a business from pretending to save stranded whales to continue their effort and continue to seek donations from the concerned public. As long as the public believes the whales “accidentally stranded” then they will continue to donate cash to those doing the rescues. Saving stranded whales has become a big business that would collapse tomorrow if the public realized the truth.
(6) Simon Woodings offered a theory indicating that of reduced effectiveness of sonar as a navigational tool is the cause of mass strandings. He states, “Attenuation of sound and ultrasound by an ocean surface layer of resonant bubbles over a gently sloping beach is proposed as a significant mechanism for disrupting echolocation.” This theory, not much different from Dudok Van Heel’s, also fails to account for most observations.
(7) Recently members of the stranding team at Sea World in Orlando Florida advanced the theory that mass strandings are the results of some aggressive pathogen that has infected the entire pod days or weeks before the stranding. They add a qualifier by saying, “Without knowledge of the time frame involved or how many animals may have already died at sea, it is unlikely that the true cause of many strandings will be established.” They also say, “It should be assumed that some or all members of the pod are ill until proven otherwise.”
The whales are indeed ill and infected with many pathogens, but a disease affecting the entire pod would be far more devastating on the very young, yet the nursing members of the pod are usually the most healthy and the ones that most often survive the stranding. Organizations like Sea World and the New England Aquarium get millions of dollars in free publicity from “pretending to save stranded whales.” Let the TV cameras disappear and these groups will go out of the whale-saving business overnight.
(8) In another bit of scientific frazzle-dazzle, Klaus Vanselow and Klaus Ricklefs compared sperm whale strandings in the period from 1712 to 2003 with solar activity, especially with sun spot number periodicity and found that 90% of 97 sperm whale stranding events around the North Sea took place when the smoothed sun spot period length was below the mean value of 11 years, while only 10% happened during periods of longer sun spot cycles. The paper they published in the Journal of Sea Research (Volume 53 (2005) 319– 327) is just as confusing as the articles published suggesting whales strand because of some sort of compass failure. This is simply not science. Rather it is nothing more than mumbo-jumbo nonsense. They suggest that variations of the earth’s magnetic field, due to variable energy fluxes from the sun to the earth, may cause a temporary disorientation of migrating animals. The only problem here is that the whales usually strand at night when the sun is shining on the other side of the earth. The real mystery here is how such nonsense ever gets published in the first place.
(9) The idea that a stranded pod of diving whales were injured many weeks prior to the stranding by excessive and rapid changes in the surrounding water pressure caused when the seafloor suddenly jerks vertically during an explosive earthquake was first presented in 1987 by Capt. David Williams in a 106-page booklet commissioned for the US Marine Mammal Commission and entitled, “Auditory Trauma as the Major Factor in Whale Strandings.” This theory suggested that exposure to seaquake-generated pressure waves induces barotrauma (pressure-related injury) in the sinuses and middle ears of all the adult pod members. Since the air contained in the various cranial air chambers also serves underwater to reflect, focus, and channel sound waves, sinus barotrauma instantly disables echonavigation and also prevents the animals from diving to the depth of their prey due to pain. The inability to feed also leads to immune dysfunction. The distressed pod huddles together and swims along with the flow of the current until washed into a beach or trapped by the falling tide.
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