Cetacean stranding

Photo of dozens of whales
A mass stranding of Pilot Whales on the shore of Cape Cod, 1902

Cetacean stranding is a phenomenon in which cetaceans strand themselves on land, usually on a beach. Beached whales often die due to dehydration, collapsing under their own weight, or drowning when high tide covers the blowhole.[1] Several explanations of the stranding have been proposed.


Every year, up to 2,000 animals beach themselves.[2] Although the majority of strandings result in death, they pose no threat to any species as a whole. Only about 10 cetacean species frequently display mass beachings, with 10 more rarely doing so.

All frequently involved species are toothed whales (Odontoceti), rather than baleen whales (Mysticeti). These species share some characteristics which may explain why they beach.

Body size does not normally affect the frequency, but both the animals' normal habitat and social organization do appear to influence their chances of coming ashore in large numbers. Odontocetes that normally inhabit deep waters and live in large, tightly knit groups are the most susceptible. This includes the sperm whale, oceanic dolphins, usually pilot and killer whales, and a few beaked whale species.

Solitary species naturally do not strand en masse. Cetaceans that spend most of their time in shallow, coastal waters almost never mass strand.


Three Beached Whales, a 1577 engraving by the Flemish artist Jan Wierix, depicts stranded Sperm Whales. Note the incorrectly recorded "nostril" and correctly extruded penis.

Strandings can be grouped into several types. The most obvious distinctions are between single and multiple strandings. The carcasses of deceased cetaceans are likely to float to the surface at some point; during this time, currents or winds may carry them to a coastline. Since thousands of cetaceans die every year, many become stranded posthumously. Most carcasses never reach the coast and are scavenged or decomposed enough to sink to the ocean bottom, where the carcass forms the basis of a unique local ecosystem called whale fall. Single live strandings are often the result of illness or injury, which almost inevitably end in death in the absence of human intervention. Multiple strandings in one place are rare and often attract media coverage as well as rescue efforts. Even multiple offshore deaths are unlikely to lead to multiple strandings due to variable winds and currents.

A key factor in many of these cases appears to be the strong social cohesion of toothed whales. If one gets into trouble, its distress calls may prompt the rest of the pod to follow and beach themselves alongside.[3] Many theories, some of them controversial, have been proposed to explain beaching, but the question remains unresolved.


"The Whale Beached between Scheveningen and Katwijk, with Elegant Sightseers," by Esaias van den Velde, c.1617

Whales have beached throughout human history, so many strandings can be attributed to natural and environmental factors, such as rough weather, weakness due to old age or infection, difficulty giving birth,[3] hunting too close to shore, or navigation errors.

In 2004, scientists at the University of Tasmania linked whale strandings and weather, hypothesizing that when cool Antarctic waters rich in squid and fish flow north, whales follow their prey closer towards land.[4] In some cases predators (such as killer whales) have been known to panic other whales, herding them towards the shoreline.[4]

Their echolocation system can have difficulty picking up very gently-sloping coastlines.[5] This theory accounts for mass beaching hot spots such as Ocean Beach, Tasmania and Geographe Bay, Western Australia where the slope is about half a degree (approximately 8 m (26 ft) deep 1 km (0.62 mi) out to sea). The University of Western Australia Bioacoustics group proposes that repeated reflections between the surface and ocean bottom in gently-sloping shallow water may attenuate sound so much that the echo is inaudible to the whales.[6] Stirred up sand as well as long-lived microbubbles formed by rain may further exacerbate the effect.

"Follow-me" strandings

Some strandings may be caused by larger cetaceans following dolphins and porpoises into shallow coastal waters. The larger animals may habituate to following faster-moving dolphins. If they encounter an adverse combination of tidal flow and seabed topography, the larger species may become trapped.

Sometimes following a dolphin can help a whale escape danger. In 2008, a local dolphin was followed out to open water by two Pygmy sperm whales that had become lost behind a sandbar at Mahia Beach, New Zealand.[7] It may be possible to train dolphins to lead trapped whales out to sea.

Pods of killer whales, predators of dolphins and porpoises, very rarely strand. It may be that heading for shallow waters protects the smaller animals from predators and that killer whales have learned to stay away. Alternatively, killer whales have learned how to operate in shallow waters, particularly in their pursuit of seals. The latter is certainly the case in Península Valdés, Argentina, and the Crozet Islands of the Indian Ocean, where killer whales pursue seals up shelving gravel beaches to the edge of the littoral zone. The pursuing dolphins are occasionally partially thrust out of the sea by a combination of their own impetus and retreating water and have to wait for the next wave to carry them back to sea.[8]


Volunteers attempt to keep body temperatures of beached pilot whales from rising at Farewell Spit, New Zealand.

There is evidence that active sonar leads to beaching. On some occasions cetaceans have stranded shortly after military sonar was active in the area, suggesting a link.[9] Theories describing how sonar may cause whale deaths have also been advanced after necropsies found internal injuries in stranded cetaceans. In contrast, some who strand themselves due to seemingly natural causes are usually healthy prior to beaching:

The low frequency active sonar (LFA sonar) used by the military to detect submarines is the loudest sound ever put into the seas. Yet the U.S. Navy is planning to deploy LFA sonar across 80 percent of the world ocean. At an amplitude of two hundred forty decibels, it is loud enough to kill whales and dolphins and has already caused mass strandings and deaths in areas where U.S. and/or NATO forces have conducted exercises.
Julia Whitty, The Fragile Edge[10]

The large and rapid pressure changes made by loud sonar can cause hemorrhaging. Evidence emerged after 17 cetaceans hauled out in the Bahamas in March 2000 following a United States Navy sonar exercise. The Navy accepted blame agreeing that the dead whales experienced acoustically-induced hemorrhages around the ears.[11] The resulting disorientation probably led to the stranding. Ken Balcomb, a cetologist, specializes in the killer whale populations that inhabit the Strait of Juan de Fuca between Washington and Vancouver Island.[12] He investigated these beachings and argues that the powerful sonar pulses resonated with airspaces in the dolphins, tearing tissue around the ears and brain.[13] Apparently not all species are affected by sonar.[14]

Another means by which sonar could be hurting cetaceans is a form of decompression sickness. This was first raised by necrological examinations of 14 beaked whales stranded in the Canary Islands. The stranding happened on 24 September 2002, close to the operating area of Neo Tapon (an international naval exercise) about four hours after the activation of mid-frequency sonar.[15] The team of scientists found acute tissue damage from gas-bubble lesions, which are indicative of decompression sickness.[15] The precise mechanism of how sonar causes bubble formation is not known. It could be due to cetaceans panicking and surfacing too rapidly in an attempt to escape the sonar pulses. There is also a theoretical basis by which sonar vibrations can cause supersaturated gas to nucleate which forms bubbles (cavitation).[16]

The overwhelming majority of the cetaceans involved in sonar-associated beachings are Cuvier's beaked whales (Ziphius cavirostrus). This species strands frequently, but mass strandings are rare. They are so difficult to study in the wild that prior to the interest raised by the sonar controversy, most of the information about them came from stranded animals. The first to publish research linking beachings with naval activity were Simmonds and Lopez-Jurado in 1991. They noted that over the past decade there had been a number of mass strandings of beaked whales in the Canary Islands, and each time the Spanish Navy was conducting exercises. Conversely, there were no mass strandings at other times. They did not propose a theory for the strandings. A letter to Nature by Fernández et al. in 2013 reported that there had been no further mass strandings in that area following a 2004 ban by the Spanish government on military exercises in that region.[17]

In May 1996 there was another mass stranding in West Peloponnese, Greece. At the time it was noted as "atypical" both because mass strandings of beaked whales are rare, and also because the stranded whales were spread over such a long stretch of coast with each individual whale spatially separated from the next stranding. At the time of the incident there was no connection made with active sonar, the marine biologist investigating the incident, Dr. Frantzis, made the connection to sonar because he discovered a notice to Mariners about the test. His scientific correspondence in Nature titled "Does acoustic testing strand whales?" was published in March 1998.[18]

Dr. Peter Tyack, of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, has been researching noise's effects on marine mammals since the 1970s. He has led much of the recent research on beaked whales (Cuvier's beaked whales in particular). Data tags have shown that Cuvier's dive considerably deeper than previously thought, and are in fact the deepest diving species of marine mammal. Their surfacing behavior is highly unusual because they exert considerable physical effort to surface in a controlled ascent, rather than simply floating to the surface like sperm whales. Deep dives are followed by three or four shallow dives. Vocalization stops at shallow depths, because of fear of predators or because they don't need vocalization to stay together at depths where there is sufficient light to see each other. The elaborate dive patterns are assumed to be necessary to control the diffusion of gases in the bloodstream. No data show a beaked whale making an uncontrolled ascent or failing to do successive shallow dives.


A beachcomber is inspecting the carcass of a whale. The bite marks on the whale were made by a Great white shark.

If a whale is beached near an inhabited locality, the rotting carcass can pose a nuisance as well as a health risk. Such very large corpses are difficult to move. The whales are often towed back out to sea away from shipping lanes, allowing them to decompose naturally, or they are towed out to sea and blown up with explosives. Government-sanctioned explosions have occurred in South Africa, Iceland, Australia and Oregon, United States.[19][20][21] If the carcass is older it is buried.

Health risks

A beached whale carcass should not be consumed. In 2002, fourteen Alaskans ate muktuk (whale blubber) from a beached whale, resulting in eight of them developing botulism, with two of the affected requiring mechanical ventilation.[22] This is a possibility for any meat taken from an unpreserved carcass.

Large strandings

On June 23, 2015 337 dead whales were discovered in a remote fiord in the Patagonia, southern Chile, the largest whale stranding of baleen whales to date. 305 bodies and 32 skeletons were identified by aerial and satellite photography between the Gulf of Penas and Puerto Natales, near the southern tip of South America. The whales may be sei whales.[23] This is one of only two or three such baleen mass stranding events in the last hundred years. However, over 1000 odontocetes (toothed whales) have stranded at Chatham Island, New Zealand and over 800 at Mar del Plata, Argentina. For baleens to strand other than singly is highly unusual, and the Patagonia baleen strandings are tentatively attributed to an unusual cause such as ingestion of poisonous algae.

See also


  1. Blood, Matt D. (2012). Beached Whales: A Personal Encounter. Sydney.
  2. Martin, Anthony R. (1991). Whales and Dolphins. London: Salamander Books Ltd. ISBN 0-8160-3922-4.
  3. 1 2 Anton Van Helden (2003-11-26). "Mass whale beaching mystery solved" (Radio transcript). The Word Today. Australian Broadcast Corporation. Retrieved 2006-12-01.
  4. 1 2 R. Gales; K. Evans; M. Hindell (2004-11-30). "Whale strandings no surprise to climatologists" (TV transcript). 7:30 report. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 2006-12-02.
  5. B. Montgomery (1998-05-02). "The fatal shore". The Weekend Australian Magazine. Retrieved 2006-12-03.
  6. Chambers S.; James R. N. (9 November 2005). "Sonar termination as a cause of mass cetacean strandings in Geographe Bay, south-western Australia" (PDF). Acoustics 2005, Acoustics in a Changing Environment. Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the Australian Acoustical Society, Busselton, Western Australia.
  7. "Dolphin rescues stranded whales". CNN. The Associated Press. 2008-03-12. Archived from the original on 2008-03-13. Retrieved 2008-03-15.
  8. Baird, Robin W.: Killer Whales of the World Voyageur Press, Stillwater, MN, 2002, p. 24.
  9. US Dept of Commerce; Secretary of the Navy (2001-12). Joint Interim Report – Bahamas Marine Mammal Stranding Event of 15–16 March 2000 (PDF) (Report). Check date values in: |date= (help)
  10. http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/booksellers/press_release/whitty/ The Fragile Edge: Diving and Other Adventures in the South Pacific, Julia Whitty. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007, p. 50; see also page 50 at Amazon.com.
  11. "Joint Interim Report Bahamas Marine Mammal Stranding Event of 15–16 March 2000" (PDF). December 2001. Retrieved March 13, 2010.
  12. Balcomb, Ken (2003-05-12). "US Navy Sonar blasts Pacific Northwest killer whales". San Juan Islander. Archived from the original on 23 May 2006. Retrieved 2006-04-30.
  13. Balcomb, Ken (2001-02-23). "Letter". Ocean Mammal Institute. Archived from the original on 25 May 2006. Retrieved 2006-04-30.
  14. Borrell, Brendan (June 1, 2009). "Why do whales beach themselves?". Scientific American. Retrieved March 13, 2010.
  15. 1 2 P. D. Jepson; et al. (9 October 2003). "Gas-bubble lesions in stranded cetaceans". Nature. 425 (6958): 575–6. doi:10.1038/425575a. PMID 14534575.
  16. D. S. Houser; R. Howards; S. Ridgway (21 November 2001). "Can Diving-induced Tissue Nitrogen Supersaturation Increase the Chance of Acoustically Driven Bubble Growth in Marine Mammals?". Journal of Theoretical Biology. 213 (2): 183–195. doi:10.1006/jtbi.2001.2415. PMID 11894990.
  17. Fernández, A.; Arbelo, M.; Martín, V. (2013). "Whales: No mass strandings since sonar ban". Nature. 497 (7449): 317. doi:10.1038/497317d.
  18. Frantzis, A (1988-03-05). "Does acoustic testing strand whales?". Nature. 392 (6671): 29. doi:10.1038/32068. PMID 9510243.
  19. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y6lTSxJvR4w
  20. "Hvalhræ dregið út á haf og síðan aftur upp í fjöru" [Whale pulled out to sea and then back up the beach]. mbl.is (in Icelandic). June 5, 2005. Retrieved July 17, 2013.
  21. "Explosive end for sick whale". ABC News. September 2, 2010. Retrieved July 17, 2013.
  22. Middaugh, J; Funk, B; Jilly, B; Maslanka, S; McLaughlin J (2003-01-17). "Outbreak of Botulism Type E Associated with Eating a Beached Whale --- Western Alaska, July 2002". Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 52 (2): 24–26. PMID 12608715.
  23. Howard, Brian Clark; 20, National Geographic PUBLISHED November. "337 Whales Beached in Largest Stranding Ever". National Geographic News. Retrieved 2015-11-21.
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