There was a story in the air about a beached whale
at one of the south campos. So JC Whitfield and I saddled
up my old Suzuki Samurai and bucked
the last ten miles of the 40 mile trip in search of it.
What we saw as we approached the beach from the km66 turnoff
was an enormous dun-colored upwelling of flesh, the size
of a Hollywood WWII German bunker. Three vultures, their
red heads like fallen ankle socks, strutted across the
azimuth of the beast like real estate salesmen showing
each other a prime piece of property. They relinquished
their throne when they saw the Suzuki encroaching. There
went the neighborhood.
The whale's body looked like a peeled grape. There didn't
seem to be any skin left on it. It's great bulk appeared
twisted and misshaped by the sheer weight of itself, rolling
and melting in places to find a balance between its skeleton
and the unfamiliar demands of terrestrial gravity. The
mountains in the distance were a startling contrast, accentuating
the planet's own search for balance, drawing the eye to
the high relief of the landscape's subcutaneous stratum,
perhaps to show an alternative to a life of lipid chemistry.
The foreground of gelatinous collapse against the background
of granite longevity brought to mind the brevity of life,
even one such as mountainous as this whale.
Downwind of the carcass, the air was an acid of stink.
It was a smell that inspired the nearby vultures to dream
of banquets and delectables, but drove JC and I to scramble
around to the whale's upwind side. We marveled at its
length and the strange way the elements, or perhaps an
illness, had contorted it and caused great lengths of
entrails to erupt from its jaws.
Why do whales become beached and die? Below are some
explanations found from a search on the internet, followed
by photos of the south campo whale.
...from an editorial on
The Canary Islands authorities have
asked Nato to halt a naval exercise in the area, fearing
it may be responsible for the death of 17 whales washed
up on the coast of Fuerteventura and Lanzarote this week.
The heads of six Cuvier's beaked whales have been
taken to the veterinary department of Las Palmas University
for examination, in particular to discover if their inner
ears were damaged by pressure from sonar devices.
The exercise Neo Tapon 2002, organised by the Spanish
navy and involving about 30 Nato ships and submarines,
is being held in the Atlantic between the Canaries and
They include the US frigate De Wert, which specialises
in anti-submarine warfare.
Two months ago a new sonar system, Surtass LFA, was
authorised for US naval use, despite fierce lobbying by
conservationists who claimed that sonar had been responsible
for the mass death of whales in the Mediterranean and
off the Bahamas.
The US government gave the navy a five-year exemption
from the Marine Mammal Protection Act after tests led
to the conclusion that the system was unlikely to injure
One of the independent marine biologists conducting
the tests, Dr Kurt Fristrup, said: "If the stranding
is tightly correlated in time and space to the Nato exercise,
this will be another clear indication of an environmental
issue that must be studied."
A Greenpeace spokesman in the Canaries said the link
was clear, but a Nato spokesman said that by the time
the whales were found dead the ships involved were 500
miles to the north-east.
The Surtass LFA system can transmit signals as powerful
as 215 decibels and the US navy says its use is vital
in helping to detect super-quiet submarines. Some scientists
believe that a whale's eardrums can explode at 180 decibels.
Beaked whales which were studied after the Bahamas
incident in March 2000, when eight died, were found to
be bleeding from the ears, and there was evidence of damage
consistent with an intense pressure injury.
Sometimes whales are still alive when they become
stranded, most often when they are in groups. Several
hypotheses have been put forward to explain these strandings
that likely have multible causes. The whales could be
sick or injured. Their sense of orientation can be affected
by sickness or parasites. It is believed that whales use
terrestrial magnetic field and coastal topography for
orientation purposes. Thus, a disturbance of these magnetic
fields or odd topography could lead to navigational errors.
Typically, whales that are put back in the water return
to shore and strand anew on the same beach. Their reference
system may erroneously tell them that deeper water lies
in this direction. Stranding of live animals often happen
in the same place, in areas with specific characteristics.
Pelagic species that are used to great oceanic depths
may be caught by the tide in shallow estuaries. In the
case of mass strandings, whales may be following a disoriented
leader, or they could be swimming towards an animal that
has already stranded and is emitting a distress call.
In short, stranding remains a somewhat mysterious phenomenon.
The cause of beaching is not definitively known. However,
there is some evidence that anti-submarine warfare sonar
and other underwater noises (such as those emitted from
oil drills) are of a sufficient intensity to cause the
whales to surface too rapidly. The whales suffer hemorrhaging
and decompression sickness due to the rapid pressure change.
The resulting disorientation could then cause the whale
to become beached.
Ken Balcomb, a zoologist, specializing in the study
of whales, particularly the Orcas populations that inhabit
the Strait of Juan de Fuca between Washington and Vancouver
Island, has investigated mass beachings of whales. In
March 2000, he investigated a mass beaching of beaked
whales in his study population stranded near his Bahamas
field station following a U.S. Navy sonar exercise. The
specimens he collected provided the first evidence of
pressure traumas that can be “caused” by sonar,
although the precise mechanism for damage is still unknown.
It is also controversially theorized that beachings
could be suicide attempts by whales, perhaps to end some
suffering. Those theories are based on the assumption
that whales are highly intelligent animals capable of
planning their own deaths.
Another controversial theory, researched by Jim
Berkland, a former Geologist with the U.S. Geological
Survey, attributes the strange behavior to radical changes
in the Earth's magnetic field just prior to earthquakes
and in the general area of earthquakes. He says when this
occurs, it interferes with sea mammals and even migratory
birds ability to navigate, which explains the mass beachings.
He says even dogs and cats can sense the disruptions,
which explains elevated rates of runaway pets in local
newspapers a day or two prior to earthquakes. Research
on Earth's magnetic field and how it is affected by moving
tectonic plates and earthquakes is ongoing.