Over the summer, we saw an unusually high number of dead whales that washed ashore on the sands of Ireland, Iceland, and western Scotland and researchers are not sure why.
Since the beginning of August, almost 80 Cuvier’s beaked whales and several Sowerby’s beaked and northern bottlenose whales have been found beached. This is the largest mortality event of beaked whale anywhere in the world but it does appear that the beachings have finally stopped.
“We know very little about any species of beaked whale in the NE Atlantic but what we do know is that they are not abundant and this mortality could be of conservation concern and not just a welfare issue,” a spokesperson from the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group explained in a statement.
According to the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, the 80 plus whales found were probably just a fraction of the total number that they believe have died. The belief particularly favors Cuvier’s beaked whales which are found further from the shore and sea level than bycaught dolphins. The group says an estimate of a total of 1,000 dead whales may be an underestimate.
Researchers are yet to identify the cause of the deaths but they suspect ocean noise caused by human activity is to blame.
Beaked whales and the Cuvier are extremely sensitive to sonar waves produced by naval ships on the lookout for enemy subs, and past strandings have been linked to military exercises in the Atlantic and Pacific. They may be affected directly (death or injury due to permanent or temporary hearing loss) or indirectly (decompression sickness or the “bends” triggered by changes in behavior).
The UK government has launched an investigation into the cause of the deaths and the Irish government has said they will fully cooperate. Unfortunately, the whales were discovered in extremely poor condition which suggests they have been drifting in the water for some time and there is a chance we may never find out