The beaching of whales in New Zealand

The real reasons for beaching by large numbers of whales are still unclear, but it is thought a combination of factors contribute and leave them vulnerable, coming too close to shore to avoid predators.


by Victor Cherubim

( February 12, 2017, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) Whales are a marine mammal. They are unusual creatures, big and beautiful and important for the ecology of our seas. They comprise different species. There are the Blue Whales, Beluga Whales, Humpback Whales, Minke Whales, Sperm Whales and many other species and varieties, excluding dolphins and porpoises.

Man and mammal have always had a close interaction, but a mixed relationship over centuries. Our impact on their lives has been considerable, their impact on ours has been crucial. In some ways they display a high level of intelligence and self recognition similar to the ways humans, elephants and primates live. When it comes to communication, whales have a very complex language. Further, they are important for man to help maintain balance of the ecosystem and helping to offset carbon in the atmosphere.

Because of their immense size, whales have been watched by tourists, whales have been harvested for food and whales have been spared by bans on whaling fleets. Their role in human culture shows how strongly we feel associated with them. Yet with admiration can come a desire to control, to destroy.

The use of military sonar and underwater sounds can confuse whales sending them off into alien waters and on to land. Add in marine pollution particularly plastic waste by man, and the danger of whales stranding is multiplied a hundred fold.

Causes of beaching

The real reasons for beaching by large numbers of whales are still unclear, but it is thought a combination of factors contribute and leave them vulnerable, coming too close to shore to avoid predators.

Beaching by one or a few whales is understandable, but mass stranding of whales and other marine mammals date back in time to Aristotle. The Greeks perhaps attributed this phenomenon as impending calamity. Whales have always been held in high esteem, sacred to some Gods and in some cases supernatural beings themselves. To the Japanese, whale meat is a delicacy, perhaps an aphrodisiac. To the First Nation People in Canada, whaling once was livelihood.

Dates of stranding

But since 1840 New Zealand has one of the highest rates of whale stranding in the world. In 1918, 1000 whales were stranded on Chatham Island. In 1985, 450 whales stranded at Great Barrier Island, off the coast of Auckland. On the 23 June 2015, some 337 whales were discovered in the remote fiord in Patagonia, South Chile, said to have been caused by ingestion of poisonous algae.

Most recent stranding

On the evening of Thursday, February 9th 2017, conservationists and rescuers found some hundreds, estimated at 650 Pilot whales washed ashore at Farewell Spit, Golden Bay, at the northern west tip of South Island, New Zealand. It was the largest stranded in living memory. They said they had no clue why the whales had beached themselves in the shallow bay, which made them difficult to swim out once they had entered.

It is in many ways an emotionally exhaustive as new Zealand is a eco friendly, socially conscious country. Rescuers, conservationists all were summoned and flocked to the site. They continued for days covering the whales with cloth, pouring water over them to keep them cool, while waiting to catch the high tide for it to carry the stranded out to sea again.

Hours after rescuers managed to refloat a group of the original stranded, a new pod of some 240 odd whales have re-beached along the three mile stretch of coastline in the same Bay. We are told some 335 of the whales have died, some 220 are still alive but stranded and about 100 are back at sea.

Possible action

While the area has been stopped in its tracts, even schoolchildren are we are told singing songs to soothe the distressed “intelligent” mammals.

Refloating the dying mammals only prolongs their suffering. Large animals as everyone knows are very difficult to euthanize humanely and effectively due to their size.

Our human instinct is to return the mammals to their natural habitat.

The world has a choice to put an end to the “islands” of plastic waste from all around the hemisphere collecting in the Pacific Ocean due to the currents and is dumped in the habitat of the whales.

We desperately need to be alert to the distress calls of these Pilot Whales before more beach themselves. Let us act by sending a message to the people of New Zealand that Sri Lanka is standing shoulder to shoulder with them in their time of need and will take it up at the United Nations to offer immediate assistance.

Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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