Every year there are hundreds and thousands of whales and dolphins that appear stranded in beaches and coasts around the world, but why?
It is not easy to determine the exact reason, but certainly in some cases it is evident that they are injured due to ship strikes, entanglement with fishing gear, traumas like attacks from predators (sharks, orcas) or sometimes they are just too sick to swim. It is also known they can get lost or confused because the increased noise in the oceans produced by human activity (shipping noise, military sonars, seismic surveys) affects their communication and echolocation. Some studies have demonstrated that they also get the decompression sickness (Fernández et al., 2005; Norina et al., 2017; Hooker et al., 2012), like divers when they surface too quickly. This may happen when they are scared and go up to the surface really fast trying to escape from loud noises. There are other factors that also are involved like pollutants, low food stocks, water temperature,… However, even if we don’t know what is the exact reason, there is no doubt that if we see an animal stranded, we immediately feel like we should act and try to help it.
But what to do if we encounter a stranded dolphin or a whale?
Well, first we need to be aware that we both (human and animal) are in a risky situation. When a cetacean strands on a beach, regardless sickness or injured, we have to consider that they carry diseases that are transferable to us, so our protection comes first, also we have to be aware that an unpredictable movement of the tail or their body can harm us really bad and not to forget that dolphins have teeth!
For the animal, of course, time counts: the sooner we act the greater is its chance of survival. Their bodies are designed to swim or float in the water and when they are on land the weight of their body causes injuries in their vital organs. Also, their blowhole may be blocked by sand or water impeding them to breathe and they can get sunburn and dehydrated easily.
So, what to do? Every stranding event is completely different. We may have just one animal or we may have hundreds, dead and alive, and then what to do or where to start becomes a difficult question to answer. But there are some simple actions we all can do:
- First we need to call for help. Call the local authorities and inform about the event, your location, description of the animal(s), weather conditions (the more details you give the better). In some countries, they have a stranding network, here in Azores you can contact the Rede de Arrojamentos Cetáceos dos Açores (RACA) they will contact the competent authorities and should be ready to act in these events.
- Approach to the animal calmly and quietly to reduce the stress and make sure it is breathing. The blowhole should be uncovered and facing upwards, it will open and close within a certain frequency varying from few seconds or up to 20 minutes for big whales. It is important to avoid the animal’s breathe, it can transmit us diseases since it is a common site for bacteria and virus.
- Cover the animal with wet towels, t-shirts or what you have in hand, even seaweed works. The most important thing is to keep it wet and protected from the sun. Just remember to not cover the blowhole!
Do not try to drag the animal back to the water, or it will cause serious injuries. The volunteer help is always needed but try to keep the less people as possible around the animal while waiting for the experts help.
These easy steps may make the difference to save a stranded whale or dolphin!
Article by Alexandra Gärtner
- Fernández, A.; Edwards, J.F ; Rodríguez, F.; Espinosa de los Monteros, A.; Herráez, P.; Castro, P.; Jaber, J.R.; Martín V. & Arbelo, M. 2005. Gas and Fat Embolic Syndrome Involving a Mass Stranding of Beaked Whales (Family Ziphiidae) Exposed to Anthropogenic Sonar Signals. Sage Journals Volume 42(4) : 446-457. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1354/vp.42-4-446
- Norina, L.; Norsharina A.; Nurnadiah A.H.; Sarol, K.; Nurliyana, M.T.; Fahmi, A.; Noordin, M.M.; Nor-Yasmin, A.R.; Hassan, M.D.; Kamaruddin, I.; Munir, M.N.; Syed Abdullah, S.A.K. & Tamimi, M.A.A. 2017. First report of decompression sickness (DCS) in a sei whale (Balaenoptera borealis) stranded in southern peninsular Malaysia. Malaysian Journal of Veterinary Research. 8(1): 57-64.
- Hooker, S.K.; Fahlman, A.; Moore, M.J.; Aguilar de Soto, N.; Bernaldo de Quirós, Y.; Brubakk, A.O.; Costa, D.P.; Costidis, A.M.; Dennison, S.; Falke, K.J.; Fernandez, A.; Ferrigno, M.; Fitz-Clarke, J.R.; Garner, M.M.; Houser, D.S.; Jepson, P.D.; Ketten, D.R.; Kvandsheim, P.H.; Madsen, P.T.; Pollock, N.W.; Rotstein, D.S.; Rowles, T.K.; Simmons, S.E.; Van Bonn, W.; Weathersby, P.K.; Weise, M.J.; Williams, T.M. & Tyack, P.L. 2012. Deadly diving? Physiological and behavioural managment of decompression stress in diving mammals. The Royal Society Journal. 279: 1041-1050.
- RACA. Rede Arrojamentos de Cetáceos dos Açores. http://www.azores.gov.pt/Gra/SRMCT-MAR/conteudos/projectos/2011/Setembro/Rede+de+Arrojamentos+de+Cet%C3%A1ceos+dos+A%C3%A7ores.htm?lang=pt&area=ct