Why we need to start rescuing stranded whales

Photo by C. Cordone, read the story of this whale here.

For early humans as hunter-gatherers traveling across vast African plains, everything was dangerous. Fortunately, simple knowledge of the local terrain, poisonous plants, and animals could be the difference between life and death. Knowledge was culturally transmitted, and if no one survived the ordeal, there was no one left to tell the story and warn others, ultimately putting all future generations at risk. Some areas were to be avoided: terrain with poisonous gasses, shifting sands, or tainted water sources did not leave much margin for learning, so the cultural transmission of knowledge was often the only defense these tribes had.

Just like early human hunter-gatherers, whales and dolphins are nomads of the sea. They travel and migrate across the vast oceans and encounter places, plants, and animals that are dangerous for them. Whales and dolphins have to learn about toxic red tides, poisonous fish, sharks, underwater eruptions, seaquakes, tides, and currents. These are dangers that require cultural transmission of knowledge, a situation very similar to that faced by hunter-gatherers. Unlike terrestrial nomads, however, these marine nomads must also deal with an additional danger that could wipe their entire pods: strandings.

Just few days ago, 12 magnificent sperm whales were found dead or dying on the shores of Germany and the Netherlands. Similarly, over 80 pilot whales recently mass stranded in India, leaving locals desperately scrambling to save as many as they could. Anyone who has ever experienced a stranding will never forget it. The close encounter with these beings is a profound, often life-changing experience for many who happen to witness the event. When you see a majestic whale or a dolphin stranded helplessly on the beach, or hear a family of pilot whales communicating in distress, your first urge is always to help, to push them back, or simply to do something. Often, this is exactly what happens in many places of the world where no established stranding network is present and where no protocols have been written. Villages come together in Vietnam, just like tourists get together and refloat as many as they can, sometimes with total disregard for their own safety.

Once a stranding network is established, organizations are formed, and the protocols are written, everything changes. When the report comes down the wire about a stranding, often the first course of action is to dispatch the police, cordon the area, and prevent any involvement from the locals or the public. Because it is hard to organize effectively on such short notice, it often takes a very long time for officials and stranding network members to arrive. Experts are consulted (often involving local pet or exotic veterinarians, or veterinarians from the closest captive oceanariums or dolphinariums) and a verdict is given that no rescue is possible, feasible, or necessary. Numerous reasons are given, starting with bad weather and ending with some mysterious diagnosis that will make any rescue efforts futile. Stranded whales are too big (like in the Netherlands case) or too numerous (often the case in many pilot mass strandings), making the rescue challenging.

The media conduct interviews with experts from the stranding network, who give carefully crafted and worded responses designed to pacify the public angrily watching the ordeal from behind the police cordons. The stranded whales and dolphins die, or they are shot, or explosives fixed on their heads and detonated while they are still alive. And no one is left to tell the story.

We know painfully little about marine tribes. We inhabit much different environments that allow us only brief glimpses into their world. Regardless of this fact, we do affect their environment profoundly. We pollute it; we detonate explosives there; we overfish; we change the climate; we use screeching sonar and deafening air guns; we fire missiles and rockets; and we conduct shock tests. We create more dangers for marine mammals and marine life than they would ordinarily encounter. But this does not mean, however, that we feel like we owe them something or that we should try harder to rescue them.

The response to such strandings is strange and varied around the world. There is no one unifying philosophy or protocol. Many stranding networks in developed countries still view mass strandings as the work of mother nature and that such events require little or no human intervention, apart, perhaps, from giving mother nature a hand and euthanizing these animals. But Vietnamese, for example, will try to rescue every stranded marine mammal because they believe these animals are sacred. Australians have recently stated that they think there are too many humpbacks in their waters, and any whale showing the slightest signs of distress should be killed. In the US, there is unofficial directive not to rescue any stranded great whales under any circumstances. JJ was probably one of the last whales actually rehabilitated and rescued in the US, and this was as far back as the late 1990s.

Every country with an established stranding response has its own philosophy and protocol, often written by random people and reflecting various conflicting interests, money-saving measures, and even political influences. These protocols are rarely updated and do not reflect any recent scientific data and studies. They are, however, evoked when strandings occur, are often followed without question, and used as a shield when the public questions the response or lack thereof.

The situation is complicated by the fact that we do not often know why whales and dolphins strand. Even though scientific studies tell us that there is often nothing wrong with stranded whales and dolphins, the protocols cling to the idea that “they must be sick or they would not strand” and the response reflects this underlying assumption.

Among many theories on mass strandings, one theory stands apart (Brownell et al., 2008), arguing that at least some mass strandings are a purely behavioral and even perhaps a panic response, perhaps as a result of the pod venturing into a place they should not be. Maybe they are fleeing Navy sonar, searching for fish in overfished waters, or maybe they simply took a wrong turn. These animals cannot find their way back, the panic sets in, and the mass stranding occurs, reinforced by distress calls from pod members calling for help.

It has recently been proposed that whaling might have wiped out so many whales that important cultural knowledge has been lost, along with knowledge about safe traveling routes and possible danger areas. A recent study (Wade et al., 2012)echoed this argument, stating that poor recovery of many odontocetes (toothed whales) since whaling times could be due to the loss of key individuals and, by extension, the loss of important cultural knowledge.

When an entire pod becomes stranded and there are no survivors, this creates a situation in which there is nobody left to tell the story and warn others. Sperm whales, for example, are known to have such cultural knowledge. Anecdotal evidence exists of large aggregations happening in some areas of the world once every three years. These aggregations could serve various functions, of which information exchange could be one such purpose.

The loss of an entire pod is not just a tragedy for the individuals in this pod; it could also have severe and profound consequences for the entire population. As the environment of such animals becomes more dangerous, mainly due to anthropogenic influences (both direct and indirect), such cultural knowledge could ultimately be a factor that contributes to the survival of the species.

Even with this in mind, our stranding response does not reflect these dangers. There is no particular goal to save as many as we can, or any at all, for that matter. The response is often delayed; poorly organized; lacking the necessary equipment and personnel; and most importantly, missing a strong ethical and life-saving philosophy. It has been noted that the result of a stranding will often reflect the philosophy of the stranding network team members responding to the event.

Wiley et al. (2001, p. 170) wrote:

For instance, an initial hypothesis that assumes live released animals to have died is no more valid than a hypothesis that assumes they lived. Similarly, assumptions that animals need to be euthanized to alleviate their pain and suffering are no more value-free than assumptions that they should be given the opportunity to survive. Such issues often lie at the heart of the stranding controversy and their consequences might not be trivial. Acceptance of the premise that animals cannot survive stranding might result in preparations and actions that aid in their death through euthanasia, neglect, or half-hearted/poorly designed rescue efforts. Acceptance of the premise that animals can survive stranding might lead to preparations and actions that favor their survival

Saving 12 sperm whales or 90 pilot whales is not an easy task, but it is not impossible. After all, 7 sperm whales were saved in Tasmania after 92 hours of grueling life-saving operation, and stranded pilot whales endured 24 hours on the beach and 17 km transport to a release site. Whales are big. The terrain is often hostile. The weather is bad. There is wind and strong surf. It is getting late and it is unsafe for responders. These are all formidable challenges, but they should not be used as excuses not to rescue or invest in measures to stop such strandings. Some early warning system could be set up in stranding hotspots like Cape Cod or the Bay of Plenty in New Zealand. We can tag survivors and track their post-rescue movement to convince skeptics that whales can, in fact, survive rescue even after 12 hours of being stranded. There are many possibilities and approaches that could be used right now.

Changing our philosophy is perhaps the most formidable challenge. Marine nomads are not seen as “persons.” We still crack jokes about “beached whales” and often use the phrase in a derogatory manner. Worse, many organizations and professionals currently entrusted to deal with strandings do not see themselves as conservationists or view their work as conservation in action. The bigger picture is not as visible, and the survival of whales and dolphins is not considered a factor that affects the entire population.

Even a single survivor of a stranding could be the one to tell the story, transfer knowledge, and warn others of its species. In the long term, this single survivor story could be the factor that changes the behavior and affects the survival of the entire species. This is why we need to start rescuing stranded whales; we owe them that much.


Brownell, R. L. et al., (2009), Behavior of melon-headed whales, Peponocephala electra, near oceanic islands, Marine Mammal Science, 25(3), 639–658.

Wade, P. R., Reeves, R. R., & Mesnick, S. L. (2012). Social and Behavioural Factors in Cetacean Responses to Overexploitation: Are Odontocetes Less “Resilient” Than Mysticetes?. Journal of Marine Biology, 2012.

Wiley, et al., 2001, Rescue and release of mass stranded cetaceans from beaches on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, USA; 1990–1999: a review of some response actions, Aquatic Mammals, 27(2), 162–171.

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