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SCIENCE
 

Why have so many whales washed up on Florida's beaches?

In this Jan. 24, 2014, photo provided by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), some of the 25 dead pilot whales that were found on shore at Marco Island, Fla., are shown. Photo: NOAA/AP

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — In the past two months, more than 90 whales have become stranded on Florida's beaches. This is much more than usual: almost three times as many.

Scientists are baffled by the strandings. They are now beginning to wonder: Could there be a single, deadly explanation?

“We’re all starting to pay close attention," said scientist Denise Boyd. She works for the state of Florida. Scientists are hoping to find out what might be going on. They will be looking to "see if there are any links" between the cases, she said.

One theory is that the whales might have come down with morbillivirus. This illness has been attacking dolphins this year. But examinations of dead whales have failed to turn up the disease.

Cold weather in the past month could be part of the problem. Sudden cold weather or a hurricane "disorients the animals,” said ocean scientist Erin Fougeres. And when that happens, "they come in."

Cause Remains A Mystery

Sonar is used by Navy ships to locate objects underwater. It can cause whales to aim toward shore. But that explanation has been ruled out, Fougeres said. The Navy wasn’t using sonar when the whales stranded.

Or, the whales could have been following a sick leader, Boyd said. Sick whales often head toward shallow waters. They do this to make breathing easier. (Remember: Whales aren't fish, so they can't breathe underwater. They must surface to breathe.)

But nothing so far is certain, Fougeres said. And “there are cases where we just never know the cause.”

On average, about 200 whales land on Florida’s shores each year. About one “mass stranding" occurs every three years in the state. These are strandings involving several whales at a time.

Yet in just the past two months, a total of 93 whales came ashore in Florida. And 91 of those were involved in two mass strandings.

On Dec. 4, 43 pilot whales got stuck in Everglades National Park. Nine died. Four days later, 11 pilot whales beached at Snipe Point. They were part of the same pod, or group, as the other whales. All of them died.

From Jan. 19–22, 12 pilot whales beached themselves between Naples and Fort Myers. Eight died or were put to sleep. On Jan. 23, 25 more whales were found dead on Kice Island. These were believed to belong to the same pod as the earlier group.

“Mass strandings aren’t necessarily rare," Fougeres said. "But to have two so close together is.”

At the same time, on Jan. 2, a dead sperm whale was found floating near Key Largo. And on Jan. 10, a sperm whale weighing up to 15 tons was found dead in Boca Raton.

Big And Bigger Whales

Florida sees more stranded whales than any other state. Before the latest cases, there were mass strandings in 2012, 2011 and 2003.

Pilot and sperm whales live throughout the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. They commonly can be found 1,000 to 2,000 feet down. There they feast on squid, octopus, crab, shrimp and other fish.

Pilot whales are typically 18 to 20 feet long. They weigh up to two tons. Normally, they live in warm or cool waters.

Sperm whales are much bigger. They are up to 60 feet long, roughly the size of a school bus. And they weigh up to 40 tons. Females remain in warm waters year-round. Males migrate north to find cooler waters, then return south to breed.

Other kinds of whales also can be found near Florida. These include: pygmy sperm whales, humpback whales, North Atlantic right whales, Bryde’s whales and gervais beaked whales.

Government scientists point to one problem they face during rescue tries: Well-meaning people who see the whales on land. Such people often attempt to push the large whales back into the sea.

“We always ask people not to push the animals back out," Boyd said. "Because they generally strand for a reason.” People who think they're helping "can do more harm than good.”

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