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In late January and early February this year at least 29 young male Sperm Whales were migrating south from sub-polar waters when, for some unknown reason, they wandered into shallow waters in the North Sea. Reuters quotes Stephen March, the British Divers Marine Life Rescue operations manager, describing them as,
‘a bunch of teenagers out having a good time but taking a wrong turning in the North Sea.’
They should have navigated further west into the Atlantic Ocean but instead 29 of their group ended up dying on European beaches in the Netherlands, France, Germany and Britain.
Sperm Whales move using echolocation. They send noise downward and wait for the echo bouncing back off things to navigate and find prey. They can stay under the water for over an hour at a time allowing them to hunt in deeper waters before coming up for air. When they accidentally move into shallow waters however they can get confused because their echolocation doesn’t work as efficiently. As they travel in these groups mass beachings are unfortunately not unheard of and written records of these occurrences date back centuries. In the 18th and 19th century Sperm Whales were hunted for their spermaceti oil which, despite being sought by humans for lubrication, is not what you think it is. The exact purpose of the oil, found in an organ in the Sperm Whale’s head, is not known but there are many theories. Depending on its temperature, the spermaceti oil can be a liquid or a solid wax. One theory for its use is to control buoyancy using blood flow to warm up or cool down the wax thus making it easier to sink or rise in the water. Another theory is that it helps control the clicking sound that the whale emits in its echolocation. Sperm Whales were also hunted for ambergris which is produced by the whale’s intestines in response to the irritation of the stomach lining from Giant Squid beaks (yes squids have beaks like birds). Ambergris was used as a fixative in perfumes for thousands of years even before whaling because it washed up on shore as a waxy substance of unknown origin. Today however we have manufactured substances to replace spermaceti and ambergris and its trade is banned by international treaties. One zoologist stated that the large number of whales in this recent tragedy may indicate that the Sperm Whale population is recovering. Sperm Whales are the least endangered whale type but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t continue to be protected as there are still plenty of illegal whale hunters on the prowl.
The true reason why these 29 whales went off course is completely unknown. It could be that pollution or warming of the waters interfered with their navigation or, as it isn’t an unknown phenomena, it may simply have been a tragic wrong turn. Only a month earlier a large number of short finned whales were washed ashore in India. Some were rescued others sadly died. Even the slightest change in the delicate balance of the ocean can have a catastrophic effect such as the case of thousands of sea lion pups stranded starving on beaches in California because a slight change in temperature interfered with their food sources. Whether these whales are the start of another tragic climate change pattern will only be known in time.
Photo: Gabriel Barathieu