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Why do whales and dolphins strand?

A live whale or dolphin beached on the shore is almost always in danger of its life. If you find a stranded whale or dolphin, whether it is alive or dead, please report it as soon as possible.

Sadly, thousands of whales and dolphins and porpoises die on shores across the globe every year, some through natural causes, some undoubtedly because of human activity. With your support WDC is at the forefront of looking at why whales and dolphins strand; of rescue efforts in some parts of the world and in helping reduce activities that cause whales and dolphin to strand.

This is important because, whilst stranding is a massive problem, there is no doubt that many of these deaths can be avoided.

Whales and dolphins are helpless on land and will die within a few hours or days if not properly looked after. In some parts of the world, including Europe, whales and dolphins that strand are usually single animals. The majority are old, sick or wounded. But in other places, for example New Zealand, they can come ashore in groups where the majority are perfectly fit.

There are a few ‘types’ of stranding with different possible causes.

Stranded pilot whales

Fascinating Fact

There is a species of beaked whale, Perrin’s beaked whale, that was first identified from a few stranded individuals and has only recently been seen at sea!

Types of strandings

Single Strandings

Live (or recently-dead) whales or dolphins often come onto the shore because they are old, sick, injured and/or disorientated. Dead whales or dolphins washing ashore could be the result of natural mortality or human-induced death, such as suffocating in nets or even a collision with a boat. Bodies sometimes carry net marks, or may even have pieces of rope or netting still attached.

In 2016, a bottlenose dolphin known as Spirtle (below), spent 24 hours on a beach in the Moray Firth, Scotland after stranding. She was eventually rescued and returned to sea. Despite being badly burnt, her skin has slowly healed and she continues to thrive.

Spirtle survived a stranding on a beach

Multiple Strandings

Live or recently dead animals of the same species coming ashore in a group typically belong to species that have a “lead animal” and live in very tight social groupings. Pilot whales are the most familiar example. Usually when they strand it appears that either the leader has made a navigational mistake’, or one individual has become sick or wounded and led the rest of its pod onto the shore. Disease can also cause animals of the same species to strand..

If whales or dolphins of different species strand together, this could be because they have been schooling together at sea. Mixed species strandings might also show that some major disturbing event has occurred affecting a wide area and driving animals ahead of it to strand, for example a chemical spill or military exercise.

Bodies coming ashore in unusual numbers - either as one species or more – often show marks or injuries they’ve got from being caught or trapped in fishing gear (known as bycatch). They may also come ashore as a result of noise’ events’ caused by military exercises or oil exploration.

Navigational Errors

Whales and dolphins are more likely to strand on some types of shore and coastline than others. Shallow, sloping shores made of soft sediment can confuse the “echolocation” used by whales and dolphins to find their way around.

A combination of factors may cause whales and dolphins to strand and one theory relates to them navigating using the earth’s magnetic field. Crystals of magnetite - which react to a weak magnetic field - have been detected in the brains and skulls of some whales and dolphins and a magnetic “sense” could be an important navigational aid, especially in the deep oceans.

Whether caused by human activity or as a result of something natural, strandings are tragic, but they, can tell us a lot, about the biology of the animals, the state of the population it came from and the marine environment.

What to do if you find a stranded whale or dolphins?

WDC staff attend and help with many live strandings, and lots of ‘dead’ ones too. Our experts are often involved in the post-mortem examination. It’s a grisly task, but we do it, because it gives us information: Information we use to get conservation measures put in place.

A live whale or dolphin beached on the shore is almost always in danger of its life. If you find a stranded whale or dolphin, whether it is alive or dead, please report it as soon as possible.

If you find a LIVE stranded or injured whale, dolphin or porpoise on the beach or in the shallows, you must act quickly. The appropriate emergency numbers to call in such an event and which can be used 24 hours a day are:

England and Wales

1. 01825 765 546 (BDMLR - British Divers Marine Life Rescue)

OR

2. 08705 555 999 (RSPCA - Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals)

Please try to give as accurate a location and description of the stranded animal as possible.

DEAD stranded cetaceans and seals (in any condition) can also be reported, to allow the bodies to be examined to try to determine causes of death and collect other important information. If possible, secure the carcass above the high water mark, and take as accurate information possible about the location and description of the animal.

Then you can call the UK Strandings Hotline (freephone number) on 0800 652 0333 or visit http://ukstrandings.org

Scotland

The appropriate emergency numbers to call and which can be used 24 hours a day are:

1. 01825 765 546 (BDMLR - British Divers Marine Life Rescue)

OR

2. 03000 999 999 (SSPCA - Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Hotline)

If the animal is DEAD then contact the Scottish Strandings Co-ordinator at the Scottish Agricultural College on: 01463 243030 or 07979 245893 (email: strandings@sruc.ac.uk).

Northern Ireland & the Republic of Ireland

The appropriate emergency numbers to call and which can be used 24 hours a day are:

Northern Ireland - 08 0232 381251

Republic of Ireland - 021 904197 or 021 904053

If you find a live stranded seal contact the Irish Seal Sanctuary on: 01 8354370 or mobile 087 2333406

Please help us saves whales and dolphins

By adopting a whale or dolphin, by making a donation, or by fundraising for WDC, you can help us save these amazing creatures.

Orca - Rob Lott

Adopt

Adopt a whale or dolphin and help us to understand the causes of strandings.

Bottlenose dolphins leaping

Donate

Your gifts will enable us to attend strandings and assist at post-mortems.

Humpback whale spyhop

Fundraise

Run, bake, walk, cycle… what could you do to help?