The sight of any beached whale or dolphin can be really distressing for onlookers, even for scientists like me who visit strandings on a regular basis. After watching the ‘whale fall’ experiment on Britain’s Whales on ITV, many of supporters were asking why stranded whales are often taken to landfill rather than being placed to rest in their natural environment, the ocean, so other marine animals can benefit.
What’s important to remember here is that the whales and dolphins we see stranded on our beaches, and hear of on other beaches, only represent a very tiny proportion of the total number that die in any given year. In other words, the vast majority of whales and dolphins that die do so at sea and they are returned to the great marine eco-system to benefit other marine animals.
So why don’t we return all stranded whales and dolphins back to the sea?
The main reason dead whales and dolphins are not returned to the sea is because of the logistics of getting the animal back into deep water (and keeping it there). We know that the ‘whale fall’ experiment on ITV’s recent documentary took huge amounts of planning; returning a dead whale to the ocean is complex and also costly. Permissions were needed from those who ‘own’ the seabed, as well as from shipping authorities – this is because a whale will float for some time before the natural bodily gasses are expelled, and only then will it sink to the seabed. This floating mass can be a shipping hazard and has the potential to strand again. This means the whale has to be weighted down and monitored continuously.
When a whale or dolphin strands, experienced marine scientists ideally undertake a ‘necropsy’ (an autopsy for animals), which allows us to get a better idea why the animal might have died. This helps us to better understand the state of the ocean and the creatures living within it. Once this has been completed, the whale or dolphin is then seen as a health hazard as the cause of death could be disease for example. In these cases the animal will need to be removed and disposed of safely.
Many whales and dolphins strand because of excessive levels of pollutants in their system, like PCBs for example, which are dangerous chemicals that damage the ocean and could cause harm to public health. Some whales, like belugas, are actually treated in the same way as toxic waste when they stand, and to return a heavily polluted animal would be considered irresponsible. Of course this raises questions about pollutants contaminating land, which is why incineration is often the best way to dispose of stranded whales.
In an ideal world, animals that don’t undergo a necropsy would be returned to the sea to become part of the marine food chain, but sadly the logistics, including costs, permissions and time, currently make it prohibitive. It’s not an impossible task, but disposal by incineration or burying is deemed the preferred and simplest option.
As noted, let’s not forget that when it comes to stranded whales and dolphins, we’re only talking about a very small percentage of the total number of animals that die each year. Importantly, with each one that does die on our shores, we learn a huge amount that can only enable us to protect and conserve them better.