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Panicked Whales Are Stranding in Area of Seismic Exploration

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Last Saturday (Sept. 7, 2013), approximately 100 frightened pilot whales came into the harbor at Rif in Snaefellsnes, West Iceland -- 10 of them dead or dying. Some were butchered, possibly while still alive.

From the Iceland Review:

Róbert Arnar Stefánsson, biologist at the West Iceland Institute of Natural History, says that proper procedures were not followed when the whales drifted into the harbor.
Róbert told ruv.is that it is difficult to know whether it would have been possible to save the whales but that using knives to cut the meat would have been very painful if the whales had still been alive.

It is not yet known why the whales swam into the harbor. "They were clearly distressed and frightened," he said.

Days earlier, a group of pilot whales came into a bay in Scotland in a similar state of panic, but fortunately chose a place where people were not interested in brutalizing them further. I was working on that story when the sad news from Iceland came.

Both the Iceland stranding and the near-stranding in Scotland coincide with intense ongoing seismic oil exploration in the North Atlantic. It is a modern day gold rush, and like the gold mines that often left the environment destroyed, the search for oil under the sea floor is relentlessly destroying life in the oceans. This first part of a two part series explores how cetaceans (whales and dolphins) react to seismic blasts in their environment, the second part will explain the process and debate what can be done.

On September 3, 2013, a group of pilot whales showed up in a bay along coast of Scotland's Shetland Island. They looked battered and panicked as they huddled in a tight mass, presenting an image very different from what most of us have come to believe about of how these stranding events take place. Within days, another pilot whale, a pygmy sperm whale, and a minke whale were also found dying or dead nearby.

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While whales have always beached themselves from time to time, last week's unusually large and diverse strandings in Scotland underscore the problem that is going on worldwide as these events occur frequently and in large numbers, and is frequently tied to sonar from military vessels or seismic surveys by oil companies. And when the loud noise surprises the whales, chaos often results.

The Biological Records Centre Manager for the Shetland Amenity Trust, Paul Harvey, was called while these pilot whales were still milling about 400 yards offshore. Over the next few hours as the whales moved closer to a sandbank, Harvey observed that the group really didn't appear to want to follow a 'sick leader' onto the sand bank - he said of the presumed leader: "It genuinely appeared like a battle of wills. She was trying to take them inshore but some of them seemed to think it a bad idea."

There were between 35 and 40 animals in all - a mixture of mature animals and young ones, based on size and fin-shape, with at least one very small calf. It seemed to me that one animal (I suspected a female based on size and fin-shape, she was easily identifiable as she had a large knick out of the base of her fin) repeatedly swam up the voe [bay].

She would get about 10 metres ahead of the pod and then return. Initially she seemed to be successful in getting the pod to follow her but once they got within 50 metres of the sandbank they seemed less keen to follow. Between one and four animals continued to follow her, however, for a few metres but then turn back. This process was repeated 10 or more times. It genuinely appeared like a battle of wills. She was trying to take them inshore but some of them seemed to think it a bad idea.

This was all accompanied by much spy-hopping and interacting (I could even hear animals emit a kind of high pitched whistle). Animals were touching each other and there was some tail splashing, lying on backs and occasionally quite strong physical coming togethers. Some animals were getting themselves may be a third or more out of the water in a vertical spy-hopping type movement. When the rib [boat] (in a co-ordinated rescue) did come in the animals did not really seem to register it until it got close. Then suddenly they were off, coming well out of the water and moving back off to sea as a co-ordinated group.

No animals stranded as far as I am aware and I have not heard of the pod since.

Harvey's observations are supported by recent research which has shown that whales who beach together show that social disruption may be key in their stranding, and that the animals may not be related or even belong to the same pod. In their study, Role of Kinship in Mass Strandings of Pilot Whales Questioned , researchers report:

Mar. 14, 2013 -- Pilot whales that have died in mass strandings in New Zealand and Australia included many unrelated individuals at each event, a new study concludes, challenging a popular assumption that whales follow each other onto the beach and to almost certain death because of familial ties.

Using genetic samples from individuals in large strandings, scientists have determined that both related and unrelated individuals were scattered along the beaches -- and that the bodies of mothers and young calves were often separated by large distances.

Results of the study are being published this week in the Journal of Heredity.

Scott Baker, associate director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, said genetic identification showed that, in many cases, the mothers of calves were missing entirely from groups of whales that died in the stranding. This separation of mothers and calves suggests that strong kinship bonds are being disrupted prior to the actual stranding -- potentially playing a role in causing the event.

"Observations of unusual social behavior by groups of whales prior to stranding support this explanation," said Baker, who frequently advises the International Whaling Commission and is co-author of the Journal of Heredity article..."The causal mechanisms of these strandings remain an enigma," Oremus said, "so the more avenues of research we can pursue before and after the whales beach themselves, the more likely we are to discover why it happens."

The lone pilot whale who stranded this week was described as showing behavior that resembled a "stroke," but that behavior -- uncoordinated, unable to swim upright -- would also be the result of any trauma to the brain, including that known to be caused by loud sound. The young minke whale showed tremors:

A minke whale has been put down by vets after it became stranded in the Firth of Forth just days after the death of a pilot whale in the area.
The 4m long juvenile whale became stuck near the shore at Crombie point in Fife at 07:40.
The animal was in distress "lifting its tail and tremoring". Firefighters had been pouring water over the whale to keep its skin from cracking.
Experts said it was a "long way from the sea".

The Scottish authorities are performing necropsies on the whales in order to try to determine why the sudden and unusual whale mortality events are occurring there. It is highly probable that the ongoing intense seismic surveys are causing these mass deaths -- loud noise has been demonstrated to damage the hearing structures in these animals, and cause to severe trauma and internal bleeding.

Video of whale with "stroke":

Next, part two: Terrifying and Destructive to Whales and Dolphins - A Glimpse into the Reality of Seismic Exploration.