Dozens of pilot whales have been found dead on a remote beach in Iceland. The animals were spotted by tourists and helicopter pilot David Schwarzhans during a helicopter sightseeing tour. It’s currently unclear why the whales died.
Describing the “very sad scene”, Schwarzhans told AP that the group counted 50 stranded long-finned pilot whales last Thursday, noting that “there might have been more. Some were already buried in the sand.” The whales were seen on a very secluded beach on western Iceland’s Snaefellsness Peninsula.
Long-finned pilot whales (Globicephala melas) are technically a type of large dolphin, measuring about 5.7 meters (18.7 feet) in length and weighing up to 800 kilograms (1,700 pounds). As their name suggests, they have impressively long pectoral fins, unlike short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus), their close relatives. Long-finned pilot whales can be found throughout the Southern Ocean and in the temperate to cold waters of the North Atlantic.
Long-finned pilot whales are very social creatures, normally found in groups of between 200 and 150, but as many as 1,000 individuals have been observed together. Their social nature makes them more likely to strand in large numbers, as pod-mates become trapped together in shallow waters, unwilling to separate. In fact, the species accounts for the largest mass whale stranding ever recorded – 1,000 became beached on the Chatham Islands in 1918.
The causes of mass whale strandings are often unclear. The animals might be sick, disorientated, pursuing prey, or chased into the shallows by a predator. They might also be affected by human factors like the use of naval sonar, which can give certain whale species decompression sickness, aka the bends. Once stuck on the sand, beached whales often die from dehydration, collapse under their own weight, or even drown as the tide begins to rise over their blowholes.
As for the most recent casualties, marine biologist Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir told local news outlet RÚV that the whales might have been caught up in the strong tidal currents of the area, prevented from reaching deeper waters by the looming seabed. The conditions may also have impacted their sonar, which they use to navigate the world around them. These factors combined with a falling tide would have left them stranded.
Meanwhile, Róbert Arnar Stefánsson, director of the West Iceland natural history institute, told RÚV that whale strandings in the area have pretty much become an annual event, and experts aren’t sure why. It might be linked to a greater number of whales being present in the area or it could be to do with external factors like climate change, disease, or predation.
The stranding comes just a couple of days after a group of around 50 pilot whales were found beaching themselves on the coast of St Simons Island in Georgia, USA. A team of concerned lifeguards, beachgoers, and wildlife experts worked together to push the animals back into deeper water. Although at least two of the whales sadly died, the majority of the group were witnessed swimming together following the event. Scientists plan to conduct necropsies of the two dead animals to try to work out what happened.
Footage of the Georgia whales being pushed back into the water, captured by Dixie V. McCoy