The Silence of the Whales

By Laura Aviles, Staff Writer 

Last month the coast of New Zealand’s South Island witnessed a massive whale stranding event. About 650 pilot whales were stranded in the Golden Bay of Farewell Spirit between the 10th and 11th of February.  More than 330 of original arrivals died while medics and members of the public tried to keep the survivors alive by cooling them with water. Local and international volunteers arrived, forming a human chain in the water to prevent them from beaching again. Conservation workers euthanized about 20 of the new group because they were in poor condition. The tragic scenes playing out across the beach, and later across the internet, made everyone inevitably wonder: why have are there been so many sea mammals stranding themselves on beaches in the past years?

The whales who met their fate in New Zealand were Pilot Whales, also known as the largest dolphins in the ocean. These cetaceans are characterized by their strong social bonds with other members of their pod. It is not unusual to find that when one of the pod’s leaders is in some kind of trouble, the rest of the group won’t leave. Their dedication to each other could be one of the causes when several dozen whales strand themsleves. However, in New Zealand’s case, the deaths of hundreds of these whales have led people to the belief that something different – and not yet explained – caused their demise.

Image from Reuters
Image from Reuters

New Zealand has one of the highest rates of whale stranding in the world. Farewell Spirit has been described as a “whale trap” because of its long, protruding coastline and gently sloping beaches, which make it difficult for the whales to navigate away from the beach once they get close. The place seems to confuse whales, and has been the site of previous mass strandings. The largest one was in 1918 when 1,000 pilot whales came ashore on Cathan Island. Although the reasons for the 1918 event have not been determined, the link to last week’s event is apparent. Several hypotheses have been proposed as to why the two groups of whales stranded, but uncertainty remains.

Sonar

Scientists have studied the ears of dead whales to learn how man-made noises affect marine mammals. Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) has been used on the inner ears of pilot whales that died during mass strandings in order to detect ‘acoustic trauma’, or damage caused by overexposure to loud noises. Although further research must be carried out, there are some theories that very high levels of sound used can harm the whale’s hearing and thus their ability to echolocate.

The US Navy uses sonar and tests explosives under water. The sound can be hazardous for whales, causing older leaders with hearing loss to lead the pods astray. The US Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service released a report acknowledging that the Navy’s experimental sonar played a role in the deaths of 17 marine mammals in the Bahamas in 2000. In 2012, when thousands of dead dolphins were found off Peru’s coast, the sonar blasts used by firms to find oil under the sea were blamed for the deaths.

Solar Storms

A second theory was proposed by NASA, which claimed that this massive stranding of sea mammals could be related to the fact that they use magnetic-field sensing to navigate. They suggested that it is time to consider the thing that messes with Earth’s magnetic field the most: solar storms.

Solar storms are massive bursts of harmful cosmic rays, fired at Earth’s magnetosphere from the surface of the Sun. These bursts can disable satellites, cause widespread blackouts, and disrupt our GPS-based navigation. NASA is now launching an investigation to see if such events could be behind mysterious mass strandings. If the results show correlation between those two, then this new knowledge will allow responders to mass strandings to predict them ahead of time and be ready to help the whales.

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Repercussions

Image from Reuters
Image from Reuters

On 11 march of 2011, a 9-magnitude earthquake hit the coast of Japan, followed by a Tsunami. This destroyed the nuclear reactors at the Fukushimi Nuclear Power Plant, leaving serious repercussions for the global environment, many of which are yet to be assessed. In the words of renowned novelist Haruki Murakami, the crisis in Japan has been described as “a nuclear war without a war”.

“While Chernobyl was an enormous, unprecedented disaster, it only occurred at one reactor and rapidly melted down. Once cooled, it was able to be covered with a concrete sarcophagus that was constructed with 100,000 workers. There are a staggering 4400 tons of nuclear fuel rods at Fukushima, which greatly dwarfs the total size of radiation sources at Chernobyl.” ( Extremely High Radiation Levels in Japan: University Researchers Challenge Official Data, Global Research, April 11, 2011)

The dumping of highly radioactive water into the pacific ocean could cause serious damage for sea animals, and could potentially have global impacts. An article by the Washington Post, released just few days before the stranding, mentioned that the radiation level in the containment vessel of reactor 2 reached as high as 530 sieverts per hour. This far exceeds the previous high of 73 sieverts per hour recorded at the reactor following the March 2011 disaster.

The deaths of the whales posed a question that remains unresolved. Meanwhile, fears that this indicates a deadly contamination in our oceans increase. Hopefully, this mystery will be resolved soon and we can avoid another heartbreaking stranding. Let’s not forget that, in the end, we are all part of the chain of life.

 

 

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