Thursday, 19 January 2006

Why did the whale cross the beach?

Whales are not just ungrateful, they're also not the sharpest mammal in the biosphere. While mass whale strandings are greeted with surprise and sadness around the world, they still just keep right on happening. And sometimes whales are so ungrateful even to be rescued they they just up and turn around and re-beach themselves. One pod yesterday was even graceless enough to sink a launch containing seven people. [Herald story here.] Baaad whales. Bad.

So why do whales strand themselves? Is it suicide or misadventure or plain old lack of the grey stuff? No one knows for sure, but another Herald story has a litany of hypotheses that begin to sound like those sorry lists of excuses for traffic accidents -- you know the sort: "I was driving along quietly, Officer, when the tree jumped out at me so I hit it." Theories given for whale strandings include the following:
  • weather patterns
  • navigation failure
  • hunting for seasonal food
  • suicide
  • seeking rest, or the 'safety' of land
  • to rub their skin
  • trying to give birth
  • escape during stress
  • one or two animals in a pod were ill and drew the remainder of the mammals inshore
  • snowstorms
  • naval manoeuvres
  • submarine sonars
  • disease
  • the drive to stay with a sick pod member
  • military tests
  • confusing underwater topography
  • previous experience of deep water, pelagic environments gives some whales less knowledge of navigating or orienting in waters close to land
  • nearshore intrusions of deep water
  • turbidity
  • heavy surf
  • wind-driven onshore currents
  • "sonar blasts"
  • the sun
  • parasitic and pathogenic infection of the inner ear
  • confusion of sonar signals in shallow water
  • changes in the earth's magnetic field
  • magnetic minima
  • noise from ships' engines
  • John Boy Walton's television performance
An interesting, if highly speculative list to which I might suggest an obvious conclusion: we really have no idea. Maybe the poor things are just so dumb they don't have the brains to avoid self-destruction. Maybe all those whale noises you hear are really the few smart whales laughing amongst themselves about how dumb the younger whales are? FIRST WHALE: "I told them yesterday, you know, but they just don't listen!" SECOND & THIRD WHALES (nodding in agreement) "Oh, I know. Why, only the other day..."

Just maybe we need to accept, however reluctantly, that whales will continue to insist on stranding themselves, that common law principle on harvest might perhaps be invoked, and that beached whales be quickly shovelled up, packaged, and sent to Japan as a sushi ingredient. Waddya say?

Linked Articles: Whale sinks launch, passengers rescued - Herald
Weather blamed in whale strandings - Herald


  1. Absolutly!

    The Scots blood in me abhors waste!

    In WWII England, Whale meat was on the menu, but it was really 'Hobson's Choice'

    I believe the blood in the tissue of marine mammals has a very high haemoglobin count and because of that, doesn't taste so great-to us.

    If someone wants it and we have all these expiring whales- supply that market!

  2. michael fasher19 Jan 2006, 06:22:00

    Ever noticed how sharks never beach themselves which are aparently the dumb ones


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