Why do whales beach themselves?

Full Transcript

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff From the Science Lab from howstuffworks.com.

Allison Loudermilk: Hey, this is Allison Laddermill, the science editor at howstuffworks.com.

Robert Lamb: And this is Robert Lam, science writer at howstuffworks.com.

Allison Loudermilk: Welcome to the podcast. Today we're talking about a relatively sad question actually. Why do whales beach themselves?

Robert Lamb: Yeah, I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture recently at the Georgia aquarium here in Atlanta hosted by Dr. Gregory D. Bossart, who is their chief veterinary office, senior vice president. And his special - this is his specialty, dealing with the question of why whales beach themselves. And he's involved in a number of rescue and rehabilitation programs as well, and it's really - yeah, a much deeper question than you might think. It's not like on par with why do boats wash up on the shore.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah, I mean we've all seen the news story. What were you saying about, you know, if a news organization had a choice between a beached whale or a car chase, it would be tough to decide which.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, I mean yeah, like if you were to turn on FOX news and they had to choose between like an OJ Simpson style car chase and a beached whale, I mean in terms of like sensational stories, that you can cover by helicopter, those are two of the big ones. Because I mean you have this poor aquatic mammal that we can all sort of empathize with on some level, you know, stranded, helpless. And then all these well-meaning, but ultimately kind of clueless people, in many cases, except for the actual marine biologists, you know, on the scene, you know trying to help the animal, push it back out to sea or douse it with water to keep it from overheating. You know this massive effort to save it.

Allison Loudermilk: Right, it's a media circus, which is sad.

Robert Lamb: Yeah.

Allison Loudermilk: It's just sad. Although I will add, as you mentioned, that sometimes onlookers do succeed in saving some of the marine mammals that are stranded, you know, by -

Robert Lamb: Right. Sometimes it is a situation where they can just push the animal right back out to sea and it's fine. Other times, you push the animal out, get it back in the water, and then it just ends up right back on the beach.

Allison Loudermilk: Right. But we'll talk about that in a sec.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, so but that's the thing. It's a lot more complicated than just, "Oh, its back in the sea. Oh, you know, it's a heavy whale. We can't push it." It's more involved.

Allison Loudermilk: Okay. So what is stranded beaching? It's pretty simple. It's when you see an animal that is swimming or floating into shore and it gets stuck in the shallow waters. And we tend to think of animals like whales or dolphins running into this kind of problem, but actually, it does happen to sea turtles too.

Robert Lamb: Mm-hm. And seals.

Allison Loudermilk: And it's a big problem because you know, shallow water isn't their natural environment, and if they actually come on to the beach, they're probably doing to die without some sort of rescue effort. And how do they die?

Robert Lamb: They end up overheating for starters. They need water to cool them.

Allison Loudermilk: Right, and they're kind of prey for any predator that comes along too.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, if you're a whale and you're washed up on some Arctic shore and a polar bear comes along, you know, it's pretty much a foregone conclusion what's going to happen. Also again, these animals are made to live in an ocean environment. So like their weight distribution is all out of whack if they're on land. There's some types of whales that when they're washed ashore, like their muscles end up atrophying on one side of their body, and it actually causes the spine to curve. So yeah, it's just a bad situation all around.

Allison Loudermilk: So like I said, it's mostly cetaceans, the order that includes aquatic, mostly marine mammals, like your whales, your dolphins, your porpoises. The bottle-nosed dolphin like Flipper, or whatever you think of when you think of that kind of dolphin, is the most commonly stranded species. So if you look through the database on some of the organizations that deal with this issue, it's just bottle-nosed dolphins upon bottle-nosed dolphins.

Robert Lamb: And part of it is they tend to live closer in to shore. But the No. 2 species is actually the pygmy sperm whale.

Allison Loudermilk: Indeed it is, Robert.

Robert Lamb: Which tends to live in deeper waters? So -

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah, and that actually lead me into the single strandings. So you have two kind of strandings. You're going to have a lone individual or maybe an individual with offspring, or you're going to have these mass strandings, kind of like the Jim Jones Culay type of debacle. But a single stranding is pretty straightforward, and this is just going to be when a sick animal beaches itself. And the sickness could be parasites, it could be disease, it could be ingestion of like a biotoxin, or it could be something, you know, like it ran into a ship.

Robert Lamb: Or something screwed up neurologically with the animal and it can't really navigate winds up on the shore.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah, and interestingly with the pygmy sperm whales that you were just talking about, they were kind of this funky, mysterious species, and the deal with them is that they're actually suffering from heart disease. And so by the time they wash up on shore, they're basically dying a slow death due to heart failure, which is - I'm sorry, it's kind of dismal. I hope you guys otherwise have had a good day. But this is a bit of a grim topic. So and then in the case of sick whales, you're also going to have calves who follow their moms, and they're hugely dependent on their moms for the first two years of their lives.

Especially with dolphins! So if a mom has some sort of sickness or injury or neurological impairment, then they're both going to strand themselves on shore.

Robert Lamb: Mm-hm.

Allison Loudermilk: So that's kind of a single stranding. That's the solo instance. Then you have these crazy mass strandings.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, and some of - these range from you know, you could be talking like a dozen whales that have washed up on the shore, or - and this just blows my mind, but 1918, New Zealand, a thousand whales washed up on shore, a thousand. You know?

Allison Loudermilk: That's crazy.

Robert Lamb: It's just apocalyptic sounding, you know? And yes, so we're talking a lot of animals. And the weird thing is that while single strandings tend to involve animals that are sick or injured, animals that are dying, in the final stages of their life, mass strandings will often include perfectly healthy animals that they're just washed up on the shore. Dr. Bossart actually told an interesting story about an incident he was present for in which 64 dolphins washed up on a shore. And some well-meaning, but otherwise untrained individuals from the area were on the scene, and so they did what might seem natural to most of us. They started pushing the animals back out to sea.

Allison Loudermilk: Absolutely. I would totally do that.

Robert Lamb: So started pushing, you know, all 64, you know, right back out into the water. And then what do they do? They wash up, all of them, again, just a little ways down the beach.

Allison Loudermilk: Why?

Robert Lamb: This is - there's a lot of mystery that still remains revolving around these mass beachings.

Allison Loudermilk: Okay.

Robert Lamb: But with the predominant theory is they believe that there'll be a particular leader dolphin, all right? And that leader, if something goes wrong, either it's an illness or something neurolog ical, and they end up going to shore. And the others simply follow. So if you push them all back our, you know, they're just all going to follow the same leader back up onto the beach. So like in this particular case, they ended up having to euthanize most of the whales, all but just a few.

Allison Loudermilk: Right because I suppose they can't elect a leader on the spot or anything like that.

Robert Lamb: Right, yeah. Then you're dealing with limited time, limited resources. They can't stay out of the water indefinitely. It's a really heartbreaking situation.

Allison Loudermilk: So let's talk about some of the other reasons beaching occurs, mainly the ones that we have a hand in, like environmental and climate change.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, this is a big one. Like an interesting example of this is when say a hooded seal washes up in Florida. A hooded seal is an Arctic animal.

Allison Loudermilk: What is an Arctic seal doing in Florida?

Robert Lamb: Exactly, you know. And they believe it has to do with - well, there were two seals in this particular incidence.

Allison Loudermilk: Oh, maybe it's a snowbird seal, you know, like the snowbirds, they call old, elderly people who hang out in cold spots during the summer and they migrate to - no, it's not that. Okay.

Robert Lamb: Well, no. well, I mean they did come to Florida to die, I guess.

Allison Loudermilk: Oh, gosh.

Robert Lamb: But there was also - they had bellies full of garbage because they had - basically they were having to go further south to try and find food. And this all has to do with something called environmental distress syndrome.

Allison Loudermilk: Okay.

Robert Lamb: In a nutshell, it comes down to this. Any kind of environmental change going on and the belief is that humans have at least a hand in this, and I'll leave everyone else to argue about that. But you're changing the recipe for life on earth --

Allison Loudermilk: Right, it has -

Robert Lamb: - at least a little bit. And it can have -

Allison Loudermilk: Ramifications.

Robert Lamb: - catastrophic, yeah -

Allison Loudermilk: For the animals' health. Okay.

Robert Lamb: Yeah.

Allison Loudermilk: Sure. Yeah, that makes sense.

Robert Lamb: So yeah, so suddenly an animal's having to go a little further south or it's leading to the emergence of new diseases, which comes into play with, for instance, the pygmy sperm whales.

Allison Loudermilk: Okay.

Robert Lamb: You know, they all have this heart disease, and there's a theory that this may be linked to environmental distress syndrome. The environment is changing. It's creating, new diseases are emerging. Old diseases are re-emerging. Everything's thrown into a state of flux, you know, all the dice have been rolled and they're coming around to a different arrangement.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah, and on a relate d environmental note, I actually read this study about chloride ion concentration in the water, and so chloride ions are handy for preventing barnacle growth on your boat, but as it happens, they also factor into your sense of hearing. And if you mess with the number of chloride ions, then you can mess with your hearing. So researchers have posited that this is one way that we're messing with cetacean hearing.

Robert Lamb: Another interesting theory has to do actually with sound. Obviously, the ocean is filled with various noises and a number of these whales and dolphins use sound, something called echo location.

Allison Loudermilk: Sure.

Robert Lamb: Basically sonar, right? So when you start introducing new sounds, you know, that everything has not evolved to deal with. Take for instance, noise generated by oil rigs. You can end up throwing the sense of this navigational sense off, right?

Allison Loudermilk: Right. You can even have noise from giant ships trawling the seas.

Robert Lamb: Mm-hm. And of particular interest, the U.S. Navy's currently funding research into this because they might be the ones to blame. There's a belief that sonar use in submarine detection training exercises may be aggravating gas bubbles in the whales' livers, which -

Allison Loudermilk: That sounds unpleasant.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. Which can actually result in decompression sickness? So that's another sound-related possibility that could be leading to a number of these like mass strandings.

Allison Loudermilk: So it interferes basically with an animal's ability to communicate, and thus -

Robert Lamb: Right. Throws off their compass and then they wind up on the shore. And again, you know, they go back out, you know, it's not going to do any good.

Allison Loudermilk: So say if someone notices a beached animal on the shore and reports it, and you, the marine biologist or whoever responds to it, like what are the options on the table?

Robert Lamb: Well, sadly, I mean in many of these cases, it ends up being euthanasia, you know? You know, you have, even just like 100, much less say 1,000 animals washed up on the beach, you know, if everybody committed themselves to the cause of saving these whales, you wouldn't be able to do it. So you've got to pick and choose. And that means trying to determine which ones are the healthiest specimens that can either - you can either release or take back for rehabilitation and possible re-release. And you can do that with like performing tooth extractions. They'll perform a tooth extraction on site to see -

Allison Loudermilk: And you can instantly tell how old the animal in question is.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. And obvious signs of like, you know, disease, age. You know, if they're covered with scars from altercations with sharks, etc.

Allison Loudermilk: I also read that they can - they're developing a device that can test the animal's hearing on site. So if their hearing is messed up, it's obviously such a key sense, then that might be an indicator of how the animal will fare back in the wild or in rehabilitation. And then you can also push them out to sea. And on occasions, it does work.

Robert Lamb: Mm-hm. Yeah.

Allison Loudermilk: More often it doesn't.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. I mean a big thing is while they're beached, just keeping them cool. Like keeping water on them and keeping them from heating up too much. Interesting that when they die, it's not a lost cause because a lot of what we know about what's wrong with these beached whales comes through performing -

Allison Loudermilk: Autopsies?

Robert Lamb: Well, with an animal, it's called a necropsy.

Allison Loudermilk: Of course.

Robert Lamb: Yeah.

Allison Loudermilk: Good point.

Robert Lamb: But yeah, in fact, they have like trailers. Like necropsy trailers that they can just perform the autopsy on site. Sometimes they'll bring them in and have them, and take care of them in a situation where they have a little more time.

Allison Loudermilk: And then there's rehabilitation, of course.

Robert Lamb: Mm-hm, yeah. And this is a big one. This is - yeah, and this is exactly what it sounds like. You bring them in. You work on addressing whatever the physical ailment is. And then try and get them back into shape to re-introduce them to the wild. And this often -

Allison Loudermilk: So it's trickier than it sounds.

Robert Lamb: Yeah because you bring them in, then you're feeding them -

Allison Loudermilk: Dead fish.

Robert Lamb: - dead fish, yeah. And then you have to - they have to relearn how to eat live fish.

Allison Loudermilk: Right, so I think one of the most famous examples of rehabilitation that perhaps didn't go so well was with Free Willy.

Robert Lamb: Oh yeah. Yeah, I would say this one did not go well at all. For those of you who are not familiar - I actually never saw the movie.

Allison Loudermilk: I didn't see the movie either. I can picture the whale.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, it's like jumping over some rocks and there's like a child involved.

Allison Loudermilk: It's a killer whale, right? Free Willy is a killer whale?

Robert Lamb: Yeah.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah.

Robert Lamb: And so yeah, the whale in the movie like gets to go free and the people were like, "Hey, we want the real whale to go free. That's not fair that this whale played a free whale when it was a captive whale," or whatever, right?

Allison Loudermilk: Right. So that would make sense on a basic level.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, but the thing is, they can't - they normally cannot release a whale back into the wild unless it's physically and mentally able to survive in the wild. Remember, these are very social animals. So it's not like it just needs to - (a) it needs to know how to find food, but it also needs to be able to get along with other killer whales. It needs to join up a pod of killer whales and thrive. So it needs to be accepted by those whales.

Allison Loudermilk: Sure.

Robert Lamb: So this was -

Allison Loudermilk: So it has some stigma attached to it.

Robert Lamb: Mm-hm. And so yeah, following all the public clamor over this, they ended up releasing the whale, whose name is Keiko, I believe. It's K-E-I-K-O. Pronounce how you will. But yeah, so people clamored, they ended up saying, "All right." They released the poor guy, and Bossart himself was a critic of releasing this an imal, and he described -

Allison Loudermilk: Okay. Why?

Robert Lamb: Well because it wasn't ready to be released. The animal wasn't ready to be re-released into the wild. And he said it was basically like a big golden retriever. Like all this animal wanted to do was come up to a human, open its mouth and have the human scratch its tongue. Which is -?

Allison Loudermilk: You're lying.

Robert Lamb: No, that's -

Allison Loudermilk: Scratch his tongue?

Robert Lamb: That's what it says. Apparently they like to have their tongue scratched. But that's all well and good in the confines of like a Sea World environment or something, you know. But out in the wild -

Allison Loudermilk: Nobody's going to scratch your tongue.

Robert Lamb: Right. And it's important to realize that the ocean is a dangerous, dangerous, harsh place. You know? I mean it's most of the earth, you know? And it's deadly. So if this whale's going out there, it's like if you release somebody from some sort of a - I don't know, a magic schoolhouse, and they went out thinking that the world is all sunshines and wallet inspectors, you know. The animal is just nor prepared for the real world any more. So this animal ended up going back into the wild, wasn't accepted by any other killer whales, and ended up dying alone in Iceland.

Allison Loudermilk: That's sad, Robert. That is really sad. Well, part of the other problem is actually a little bit more basic. It's a lack of funding. So we have all these agencies right now that will respond to a report of a marine mammal stranding. And you can find them if you head on over to NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and they have a division that deals with this exclusively. But anyway, you have all these agencies that are prepared to respond, but you don't have enough funding. So then it becomes a question of how is that money best spent? Because if you're talking about a dolphin, it can cost as much as $175,000 to rehab a single dolphin!

For something like a seal, a sea lion or a walrus, maybe it's a little cheaper. May you get $400, maybe you get $50,000. It's a huge range. But this is the kind of funding that they were talking about in the online magazine for Woods Hole. They wrote an article dealing with this.

Robert Lamb: I mean yeah, it comes down to is it worth the money? Is it worth the time? I mean in many cases, you know, through rehabilitation, we learn more about the animals.

Allison Loudermilk: Absolutely.

Robert Lamb: And there's a lot to be said for that. But take the case of C6, which was a 40-year-old dolphin. 40 years. That's an old dolphin.

Allison Loudermilk: Okay.

Robert Lamb: Just covered with scars from altercations with bull sharks. All right? This is a rugged, rough animal, washes up. All right, undergoes four months of rehabilitation. They finally release the animal back into the wild. Ninety-three days later, he chokes on a fish, an invasive species, by the way, but ends up choking on a fish and dies. So I mean the big ethical question is, in which cases are we saving the animal, more for us than for the animal's own good? You know? I mean -

Allison Loudermilk: Absolutely. Selfishly, I can say if I were in that situation of looking at a dying animal on the beach, I would make every effort to preserve the live if I could. You know, if it involved like pushing some poor dolphin back into the ocean. And then, is that the right response?

Robert Lamb: Right.

Allison Loudermilk: Not necessarily.

Robert Lamb: Because I mean the Free Willy example. There's an example of the best of intentions there. People just wanted a whale to be free. But you know, I think that was a case where it was ultimately more about what we wanted than what was good for the whale. And most of these, a lot of these animals, especially in the single beachings, they're dying. I mean this is a dying animal. You know, it's kind of, you've got to close the bo ok sometimes. But there's not really any right or wrong answer here. It's just more of an ethical quandary.

Allison Loudermilk: So on that uplifting note, if you have any questions about marine mammal strandings; shoot us an email at sciencestuff@howstuffoworks.com. Or in the meantime, you can check out some articles like What Happens When a Whale Dies? by Kristin Conger.

Robert Lamb: And we've got blogs.

Allison Loudermilk: You wrote about this on the blog.

Robert Lamb: Yeah actually I covered this initially on the blogs, a couple of posts on whales. So yeah, come check out the blogs and see what kind of topics are fresh on our minds.

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