Europe sees spike in beaked whale strandings

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Europe sees spike in beaked whale strandings

The past two weeks has seen a worrying number of beaked whales stranding around Europe, with many animals dying as a result.

Seven northern bottlenose whales stranded in Ireland, with only one animal making its way back out to sea. This was followed by eleven individuals stranding in the Faroe Islands and sightings of northern bottlenose whales near the Netherlands and Scottish coasts – all uncharacteristic encounters.

Further strandings have continued to occur in recent days, with three Sowerby’s beaked whales stranding in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Lowestoft in Norfolk. All three animals died, as did a female Sowerby’s which stranded very close to Portsmouth on Sunday. Furthermore, the carcass of an animal was found in Kent which, though in poor condition, also appears to be a species of beaked.

The number of occurences in such a short space of time is very worrying – the areas these animals are being found are not typical habitats for beaked whales and to see them in such shallow water is a worrying sign. Beaked whales live and hunt in deep waters, diving thousands of kilometres in search of squid and fish, and in shallow waters they are unable to feed and become malnourished over time.

“Beaked whales are an elusive group of animals, so this spate of encounters is a very concerning trend.” said ORCA Director, Sally Hamilton. “It’s very likely that there is a single cause for this, with a strong possibility that human activity like military sonar or seismic surveys could be to blame.”

Noise pollution in the ocean can have a devastating effect on cetaceans, and deep diving species can be particularly affected. These animals are very sensitive to noise, so acute sounds introduced into the ocean can disorientate them. Not only does this result in them being in habitats they are not adapted to, but it can also cause them to surface too quickly, bringing about decompression sickness (otherwise known as “the bends”) just like in humans.

“The devastating impact that noise pollution can have on these incredible deep diving species really reinforces the need for us to better understand their habitats so we can stop human activity from damaging their populations.” continued Sally Hamilton. “ORCA’s research in the north east Atlantic has given us a insight into the range and distribution of these hard-to-spot species, but continuing to study and giving policy makers the information they need to protect their habitats is vital to avoid future incidents like this.”

The Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP) are planning to study the recovered animals further in the hope of determining a more definitive cause of death. ORCA will share any more findings on social media and our website, so follow us to find out more.