What happens to beached whales?

Nature and Environment

A team effort

Earlier this month, locals in Aceh, Indonesia, teamed up to try and help 10 sperm whales that beached themselves in shallow waters. Volunteers managed to pull six of the animals back out to sea, but four died. There is no real consensus on why whales become stranded, but there are plenty of ideas...

Nature and Environment

Follow the leader

Some whale species live in social groups known as 'pods', each of which has a leader the other animals swim behind. If the lead animal finds itself close to the shore and in trouble, it can send out a distress signal. The whales following behind may try to help and end up stranded themselves. There is also the possibility that whales become caught while chasing prey.

Nature and Environment

Manmade strandings

Another school of thought on why whales become beached suggests that overfishing forces the marine mammals to seek food in unfamiliar and potentially shallow waters where they become trapped. There is also some evidence that naval sonar can disrupt and confuse the animals while migrating.

Nature and Environment

Evading the deep

If a whale perishes deep in the murky depths of the sea, its body sinks to the bottom providing nourishment for a plethora of other animals and organisms for years, even decades to come. But those already close to the shore, may wash up on the beach, like this whale that appeared in Rio de Janeiro. If this happens, the animals decompose on the sand - a phenomenon that can cause other problems.

Nature and Environment

An explosive response

Though these sunbathers appear undeterred, the stench of a putrifying whale carcass would be enough to put many off their holiday. And the smell is not the only issue. When one of these ocean giants dies and begins to decompose, gases build up in its stomach where they are trapped by a thick layer of blubber. If humans climb on, or try to move the dead whale, it can explode.

Nature and Environment

A sandy grave

Disposing of a whale that has washed ashore can be a difficult task. Because they can pose a risk to public health, leaving them to rot on the beach is not an option. The best way, say some environmentalists, is to bury them on the beach itself, as was the case with the four whales that died in Aceh.

Every year, some two thousand whales are found stranded on beaches all over the world. But how do they get there? And what happens next?

Whale beachings have been recorded throughout history, and still continue at a regular rate today. A sense of human kinship with these vast creatures of the deep means that when it does happen, volunteers often turn out in their droves to try and help them back into their element. 

Their sheer size makes this a difficult task. Some species, such as the blue whale - the largest mammal on earth - are so heavy that their body weight would crush their own organs after a very short spell out of water. With the correct help, others can survive on land until the arrival of higher tides that faciliate their refloatation. But even then, it is common for them to rebeach.

When on land, the marine mammals, which have a thick layer of insulating blubber to keep them warm when swimming, are generally at risk of overheating. Pouring cold water over them can help to prevent this and buy the animals a little more time. The majority of whales that beach, however, don't make it back out to sea.

Click through this gallery to find out how whales become stranded in the first place, and what happens to a washed up carcass.

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