Another Life: Why do whales and dolphins end up stranded on our beaches?

Scientists have found that stray magnetic fields can steer them off course

Pilot whales: a pod of 13 beached in Co Donegal last month. Illustration: Michael Viney

Pilot whales: a pod of 13 beached in Co Donegal last month. Illustration: Michael Viney

Sat, Aug 16, 2014, 01:00

At one point in the whole distressing affair, so the story goes, a young woman was bringing cups of water from the sea to pour over the skyward eye of one of the whales – an eye still seemingly bright with life. She was checked in her merciful, if futile, mission by someone assuming authority in how to let stranded whales die. But that was the trouble at Falcarragh, Co Donegal, last month: no one, really, with any experience was in charge of anything.

An early-morning runner had found the pod of 13 pilot whales scattered along the sand at Ballyness Beach. By midday, with the tide rising, a score of local people were wading in, some fully clothed, to try to refloat the animals still breathing. It worked with a few of them, but, as so often happens, they beached themselves again. After five days, all were dead and buried by bulldozer.

The disputatious details of it all – who said what, who tried so hard on the phone, who wasn’t told in time, who wouldn’t come – are past discussing here. A good result was a public meeting, often emotional, that formed the North West Whale & Dolphin Support Group, “to lobby for government policy changes towards stranded marine animals and to promote specialised training”. For a level-headed account, try the website seanhillenblog.com, which is subtitled “Fragments from a Forgotten Land”.

A forgotten land, indeed, Donegal so often seems to be. And to Mick O’Connell, strandings officer of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, the Falcarragh affair was “groundhog day” in the matter of beached but living whales. He recalls the furore that attended the end of a big fin whale that stranded in Co Cork in the summer of 2012 and took more than three days to die: it brought much talk, again, of preparation for “the next time”.

On the IWDG website now he defines the position of what has been a brilliantly successful NGO – often, indeed, a victim of its own success and expertise. As O’Connell writes: “IWDG is predominantly a research and conservation organisation and has neither the resources or authority to manage live strandings other than in an advisory role.”

Thus, while it spreads knowledge and practical training in how to help beached whales and dolphins, and remains the centre of wisdom on when to give up trying to refloat and when and how, perhaps, to end suffering by euthanasia, it is not geared to take national responsibility for dealing with live strandings.

“The relevant agency,” he says, “needs to have in place a coastal network of personnel trained in the latest ‘best practice’ [and] backed up with appropriate authority to act as beachmaster when dealing with members of the public, the gardaí and the Irish Coastguard Service.” That agency, he logically decides, should be the National Parks and Wildlife Service, already the statutory authority for protection of cetaceans and their habitats.

The long-finned pilot whales (actually very large dolphins, like the killer whales) have been “mass stranding” throughout history. The puzzle of why they should do so, markedly at particular beaches round the world, remain largely unresolved. A new IWDG policy document on cetacean welfare suggests a possible role for geomagnetic force fields in causing “navigation errors”. This has been prompted by research developed by Margaret Klinowska of Cambridge University and now supported by many marine scientists internationally.

Along with other migratory animals and birds, many cetacea have crystals of magnetite in the brain and skull that are capable of sensing Earth’s overall magnetic field. Like turtles, pigeons, sharks and other vertebrates, whales and dolphins may use marine magnetic contours as a map for travel and migration.

In many places on the planet, however, there are mineral formations, known as geomagnetic anomalies, that create local variations in the magnetic field. Meeting the coast at right angles, these can mislead passing cetacea into following magnetic lines ashore. Dr Klinowska and scientists in the United States have matched persistent mass strandings to many sites of such anomalies (Cape Cod notoriously among them).

Ireland’s rich variety of igneous rocks offers its own examples, and in a new map of global anomalies the west of Ireland is marked by a big red blob. In 2009 a team led by Dr Paul Gibson of NUI Maynooth reported on the exceptional magnetic anomalies of the Cuilcagh Dyke, a formation stretching from Fermanagh to the coast around the Bloody Foreland, in Co Donegal. In 1975, Dr D W Howard traced magnetic anomalies to an “igneous intrusive” lying under the end of the Dingle Peninsula, scene of periodic mass strandings.

There are many reasons why whales and dolphins may strand and die individually, and family or pod bonding may have its own effects. But they may also be troubled by planetary forces outside the human experience.

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