200 Pilot Whales Beach Themselves on Australian Coast, Fourteen Young, Rare Sperm Whales Do The Same On Another Beach, Cause Still A Mystery

Authorities are at a loss about what caused at least 14 young male sperm whales to beach themselves and die on a remote stretch of Australian coastline. Meanwhile, rescuers are trying to save some of more than 200 pilot whales who also beached themselves on a beach some distance away.

At last report perhaps 44 of the pilot whales have been saved by human rescuers and released in deeper waters.

Illustration of the sperm whale while attacking fishing boat from The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839) by Thomas Beale (1807-1849). Original from The New York Public Library. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.
Whaling wasn’t easy as this illustration from Openverse shows. Physeter macrocephalus (sperm whales) could put up quite a fight.

Whales sometimes beach themselves but no one is sure why and these cases are no exception. According to the Daily Mail authorities will fly an aircraft over the site to see if more sperm whales are beached. A veterinarian will also conduct necropsies (animal autopsies) and collect samples to look for a medical cause. It is believed that a single whale beaching itself is usually sick or injured.

Speculation centers around the fact that the victims were all young male sperm whales. . They may have recently left the maternal pod and traveled together. It is suggested that there was a navigational error by the whales, or they followed one headed too close into shore. The causes of pilot whale stranding are believed to be similar. It is also thought that the gentle slope of the local beaches may make them feel they are in deeper water.

A Pilot Whale
A Pilot Whale by Hendrick Goltzius is licensed under CC-CC0 1.0 Pilots whales (Globicephala) are one of the largest members of the dolphin family,but are classed with whales for conservation purposes.

The sperm whale incident occurred at King Island off the coast of Tasmania. King Island has some tourist business, fishing, a small amount of mining and a limited population close to 2,000 people. It is roughly 424 square miles in size.

The pilot whales were stranded off the west coast of Tasmania. Tasmania is an island state of Australia located about 240km south of the mainland.

Sperm whales are the largest toothed predator on the earth. They take their name from spermaceti, a waxy, oily substance in their heads. It was thought to be coagulated sperm. The whales use it to help with buoyancy and to help with focusing acoustic signals. Because of the way humans use it, it was, perhaps, almost their undoing. Whale products including blubber, meat , oil and spermaceti came greatly into demand after 1800. Oil for lighting and heating (especially expensive candles) were prime movers in the increased demand and ships of all nations took to the seas. There was great profit and untold numbers of whales were killed. Around 1857 the whaling industry swiftly began a long decline. In that year kerosene lamps appeared. They were vastly cheaper, easier to produce, and had a better odor than whale oil lamps and candles.

Sperm whale from Johnson's household book of nature (1880) by John Karst (1836-1922).
Sperm whale from Johnson’s household book of nature (1880) by John Karst (1836-1922). by Biodiversity Heritage Library is licensed under CC-CC0 1.0

Although the whaling of sperm whales did not end completely until 1986, the pressure that was driving them to extinction was eased. They are still considered rare but are believed to be increasing in numbers.

Whale beachings are more common than many realize. Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida has this to say on its website:

“Cetacean stranding, more commonly referred to as beaching, refers to the phenomenon of dolphins and whales stranding themselves on beaches. There are around 2,000 strandings each year worldwide, with most resulting in the death of the animal. Beachings are rare enough that they are not a significant threat to any species. The beaching of a single, live animal is usually the result of sickness or injury. Bad weather, old age, navigation errors, and hunting too close to shore also contribute to beachings.

Some whale and dolphin species are more prone to mass beachings. Toothed whales (Odontoceti) are the most commonly affected. Toothed whales include dolphins, porpoises, and all whales with teeth. It is more common for these cetaceans to live in large groups with intricate social systems. If one member of the group is sick or in trouble, its distress calls can cause the other members to follow it to the beach, resulting in a mass stranding.”

It is also possible that human use of sonar underwater may confuse or injure some whales and cause them to beach.

Pilot whales are highly social and live in large groups, sometimes numbering in the thousands.

Tasmania has been in the wildlife news recently. Both for efforts to “de-extinct” The Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacine) and save the Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophius harissii),

Published by ursusrising

long time writer and editor living in Los Angeles

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