Let’s Talk About: Cetacean Strandings

The recent mass cetacean stranding in the Florida Everglades has drawn a lot of attention, from the media and public alike, however this isn’t the first time a mass stranding of this particular species (False Killer Whale, Pseudorca crassidens) has occured (Kommetjie, 2009; Hamlin Bay, 2005).  It’s not even the first cetacean stranding this year (25 dolphins stranded in Cornwall), but, it did create a lot of media attention and, as such, is a major talking point that could certainly help raise cetacean awareness.

Beached False Killer Whales in Flinders Bay, 1986 - all whales were returned safely back into the sea

According to the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP) there has been a 25% increase in reported cetacean strandings in the last 20 years, with at least 500 beached cetaceans found on British beaches in 2016 alone.

But how and why do these strandings occur?

There are numerous theories as to why cetaceans become stranded and some debate on whether this behavior is accidental, intentional or a mixture of both, particularly when it comes to mass strandings (strandings involving two or more cetaceans). Some of the theories are backed by scientific evidence and research such as: sonar disruption causing disorientation; chemical pollutants and disease outbreak; and ingestation of litter.  Other causes can include: dehydration; distress; on even sunburn if a live animal is stranded for too long. But one thing all researchers seem to agree on is that there is no singularly clear reason for mass strandings or why some animals repeatedly beach themselves even after being re-floated (Cape Cod, 2002).

So, what do I do if I find a stranded whale or dolphin?

First things first – Is the animal alive?
This is the most important question to ask and severely impacts on the actions you take next.
The following information covers the steps you should take in the event of a stranding (and who to call if in the United Kingdom, for other countries, see link at the bottom of this page)

Yes, It’s alive.

Do NOT attempt to rescue the animal yourself – this is a wild animal that is stressed and potentially injured/sick and in need of veterinary attention.

Live strandings in the UK need to be reported to the British Divers Marine Life Rescue. They have a large database of volunteers who have been trained to deal with stranding situations (as well as injured seals, but that’s another post for another day) and will send out a mass text message asking those in the area (your location is registered when you complete training) to contact and provide help if available.

After you’ve called the relevant authority, listen and follow their instructions!
Keep direct contact and number of people present to a minimum until help arrives to reduce causing the animal further stress.
Keep dogs (and small children) well out of the way.

The most important thing in a live cetacean stranding is to KEEP THE ANIMAL DAMP to prevent the skin cracking/burning –  soaked towels, seaweed, buckets of water, anything to keep the animal comfortable – just ensure to avoid getting water in the blowhole as cetaceans need this clear to be able to breathe.  Making troughs under the pectoral fins to allow some movement can also help, but only do this if safe to do so and the animal is not thrashing about – NEVER stand directly next to the tail fluke as cetaceans are powerful creatures and one well-aimed tail flick could send you reeling.

Members of the public help keep stranded whales damp during the 1986 stranding in Flinders Bay

No, it’s not moving.

Sadly, not all stranded cetaceans can be saved, but that doesn’t mean that they should be ignored or left.

Organisations like CSIP can carry out necropsies on deceased cetaceans to determine likely cause of death.  This information can indicate patterns in strandings, identify potential disease outbreaks, reveal the presence of harmful chemicals or inform on better practices for in-water activities (such as naval maneuvers using sonar technology).  Strandings can also provide vital tissues samples for future research, particularly if a less-common species washes up.

In the event that you discover a dead cetacean in the UK, contact the CSIP hotline (Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme if in Scotland) and give a description of the following where possible (note this information is also useful for live strandings).

Location and date found
Species and sex (if known)
Overall length
Condition of the animal
Take clear photos if possible to help assist identification

Again, keep contact to a minimum particularly as cause of death could be disease related.

Where can I find more information?

The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) not only provides a practical guide for helping beached whales and dolphins but their website also reports news on sightings and strandings around Ireland, with a list of all recent strandings and locations. Making this kind of information easily accessible to the public is key in raising awareness, not just for cetacean strandings but on how human activities impact marine life as a whole.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) has a comprehensive list of live stranding networks which is ordered by country.  Although this list was last update in 2011 it provides a key starting point, and many of the organisations listed are still correct (List of Stranding Networks)

The BDMLR also has downloadable guidance on what to do if you come across a live beached animal (most of which is listed above).  They also provide a Marine Mammal Medic training course for persons wishing to assist with seal and cetacean rescue.

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