August 3, 2023

Researchers hope footage of mass stranding on Cheynes Beach could help understand why whales beach themselves

Drone footage captured during the recent mass stranding of pilot whalesalong the south coast of Western Australia could provide valuable insights formarine experts. By studying this footage, scientists hope to gain a betterunderstanding of why these whales, as well as whales in general, becomestranded on beaches.

Despite the best efforts of authorities and volunteers, at least 40 of the surviving whales had to be euthanized after attempts to guide them back to the sea.

The reason behind this behavior, like in all cases of whale beachings, is still unknown. However, experts are optimistic that the extensive footage captured of the pod's behavior prior to the incident might offer some insights.

"To witness such behavior is truly remarkable," stated Dr. Pirotta, referring to what could be pre-stranding behavior that is now observable from a bird's-eye perspective.

The pilot whales shaped themselves into a heart formation in the ocean just before they stranded on the beach.

“We utilize drones for research purposes, taking advantage of the opportunity to gather valuable information”. “Even without the presence of scientists, we rely on the contributions of citizen scientists and non-scientists who assist us in collecting data. This collaboration is truly astonishing”.

Dr. Pirotta stated that there are several theories regarding the mass beaching of the pod. One theory suggests that sound, specifically acoustic pollution, could be the cause. Humans are known for being quite loud, but we are even louder in the ocean. This noise may potentially disrupt these animals.

According to Olaf Meynecke, a research fellow at Griffith University, pilot whales are exceptionally emotional creatures. Their strong emotions may be the reason why they engage in stranding behaviors. Dr. Meynecke stated that he is confident that most of the whales were fully aware of the risks associated with being near the shore.

Recognizing that our actions have an impact on both land and the marine environment is something scientists need to address in order to effectively protect these creatures.

The connection between the sick and injured pilot whales and the rest of the pod was a significant factor in yesterday's rescue effort. Responders had to separate the weak whales from the pod to prevent them from potentially leading the whole group back to the beach during the rescue.

Dr. Meynecke emphasized that the whales' actions went beyond their own survival. They showed a willingness to sacrifice themselves and stay in a dangerous situation regardless of the consequences.

Scientists are not only analyzing the footage, but also collecting DNA andother samples from the deceased whales to check for diseases.