Northern Europe is getting littered with dozens of sperm whales washing up on its shores. Almost all of which are already dead when they are discovered and attempts to save the still alive whales has failed.
These massive creatures first started appearing on beaches on January 12th when five werre found on Texel Island in The Netherlands. As of February 9th, 30 sperm whales have been found washed ashore along the U.K, Germany and France according to the BBC.
While beachings are not uncommon, this is an unusaul event. There have been onlly 82 beachings since the 1990s. The U.K. Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme tracks these types of events.
“We have a strong baseline for mortality rates,” CSIP project manager Rob Deaville told IFLScience. “We normally see 600 strandings of all cetaceans each year, and of those we expect to see 2 to 5 sperm whales on average.”
“While we have historically had mass strandings in the U.K., they’ve tended to be in Scotland. There has been nothing in this order on the England coast for 100 years. It’s markedly unusual.”
Why Is This Happening?
The whales that are washing ashore are all male and of a similar age, making it likely that they all belonged to the same pod. Females tend to stay in the warmer waters of the tropics or subtropics, caring for young, while the males journey to higher latitudes.
The North Sea is dangerous for sperm whales because it is shallow, making their echolocation difficult and scarce in their main food source, squid. It is possible that they became confused and ended up stuck because of it. An autopsy of one of whales showed an empty stomach that was stained with bile meaning it was absent of food for quite some time.
But why were they there in the first place? “There has been a lot of speculation on what might have brought them,” said Deaville. “The strandings have been linked with wind farm activity, naval sonar, and even climatic factors that may have had an impact on prey distribution and sea surface temperature.”
“While it’s too early to say at this stage, we will be looking into this in the weeks and months ahead, gathering what data there is out there and trying to tie things together.”
Of course disease is another possibility, perhaps the morbillivirus that naturally infects cetaceans. Further analysis is currently underway. Hopefully by gathering the information now, an answer to this mass beaching, although gathering the information can be tough since the carcases tend to exploded from built up gases as they decompose.
It might also be a combination of things all occurring at once, with different drivers for each beaching and the animals may not have all belonged to the same pod.
The sperm whale is classified as a vulnerable species but their is evidence that their population is increasing.