Yet another sperm whale has become stranded at Hunstanton beach in Norfolk on the east coast of England. As this individual struggles for what might be its final breaths we wonder what has caused this series of unusual mortality events.
Twenty-eight sperm whales in total have beached in the North Sea since the 9th of January making landfall in Germany (16), the Netherlands (6) and The Wash Estuary on the East Anglian coast of England (6). One additional whale beached in the Atlantic waters of France this week. With such heavy bodies (more or less 40 tons), which are accustomed to being supported in salt water, fatal organ failure is very likely once these animals become stranded without water to support their hefty bodies. While British Divers Marine Life Rescue is present at the scene, the prospect of a rescue is very unlikely for this animal.
Marine mammals may strand for a variety of reasons, these can be completely natural occurrences influenced by environmental and ecological events, or indeed they may be results of human interference with the ecosystems, which support these animals. Main threats for this species are exposure to unusual levels of sound, toxins in the marine environments, heavy shipping traffic. Sperm whales are categorised as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened species.
Initial investigation found squid beaks in the stomach but also bile staining in the intestines; these animals had been eating but not recently and not as much as was necessary to sustain them. This is consistent with sperm whale stranding’s in the North Sea, though according to CSIP, this is the largest mass stranding of sperm whales in England in over 100 years. It is possible that once in the shallow waters and estuaries, their navigation systems which are more accustomed to the open ocean have failed them. The marine mammal pathologists at the UK's Cetacean Stranding Investigation Programme (CSIP) will be collaborating with European stranding networks in order to reach conclusions with regards to the impetus for this mass stranding event.
Until reports are published with conclusions about this mass mortality event, we can only postulate upon why these deep sea animals have come into relatively shallow waters and the circumstances which have brought them in to strand.
While it is a very sad experience to see such magnificent animals losing their lives and coming to strand on our beaches, there is much to be learned from them about the natural world and our impacts upon it. At Whalefish we act as a forum for communication, encouraging experts and the public to share interest and knowledge in order for us to better understand this incredible planet and its fascinating ecosystems.