Tracing the death trail of Europe’s beaching sperm whales

In its element, the open ocean, the sperm whale is an incredible force of nature. A highly evolved, supremely specialised survivalist, these magnificent mammals don’t do tourist-pleasing tricks on the surface for boats, à la humpbacks, but they are capable of diving for up to 45 minutes on a single breath, to depths of two kilometres, where they go into mortal combat with giant squid.

In the heyday of whaling, these animals were as feared by hunters for their fighting spirit as much as they were coveted for their high oil content. Once they’d harpooned a sperm whale, the crews of small whaling boats were often taken on a ‘Nantucket sleighride’, with the speared animal dragging them for miles across the waves.

The novel Moby Dick is not complete fiction; Herman Melville based his classic yarn—currently being told on cinema screens in Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea—on the story of The Essex, a whaleship that was completely destroyed in the middle of the Pacific by an enraged bull sperm whale, which repeatedly rammed the hull after whalers attacked its family.

Sperm whales notoriously put up a ferocious fight when hunted
Sperm whales notoriously put up a ferocious fight when hunted

Stranded on the beach, though, a sperm whale is a helpless 20-tonne lump of doomed flesh. Although they may survive for several days, their immense bulk, when suddenly unsupported by water, begins to crush those fantastic lungs that serve it so well in the sea. Over time their breathing becomes shallow, the animal’s metabolism goes down and they overheat.

And this is the upsetting sight that has greeted coastal residents of North Sea settlements 30 times already this year, with six fatal beaching incidents in England—two in Norfolk and four in Lincolnshire—and a further 24 spread along the coasts of France, Germany and the Netherlands.

It’s a bewildering phenomenon, and deeply distressing for people to observe, with the animals thrashing around in the shallows or lying helpless on the sand, dying under their own weight as concerned onlookers stand around in stunned impotence. It has happened before, but not since George III came to the throne in England and the America Revolution was just kicking off. So what exactly has triggered the worst spate of mass sperm whale beachings for over 250 years?

Teams from the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme and London’s Natural History Museum are currently investigating what led to these animals arriving in the North Sea and ending up the beaches of northern Europe, but locally-based experts already have some well-grounded theories.

Carl Chapman, Cetacean Recorder for the Norfolk region, starts off by explaining that all the animals that have come to grief over the past two months have been young males.

‘The females and the young stay around the tropical water of the Azores,’ he explains. ‘As the numbers increase, bachelor pods of adolescent males peel off and go north, right up into the Arctic Circle. Then, for reasons we don’t fully understand, they work their way down. And it seems as though these guys have turned left too soon, and ended up in the North Sea instead of the Atlantic Ocean. They were probably chasing shoals of squid—several of the animals stranded in the Netherlands had Gonatus squid in their stomachs, which is a species known to inhabit the North Atlantic.’

Suddenly finding themselves in relatively shallow water is ultra bad news for these ocean-roaming animals.

‘This extraordinary creature—which is used to living in the super-deep ocean, several kilometres off the edge of the North-West European continental shelf—suddenly finds itself in water that’s barely goes down 40 metres, and it thinks, ‘whooaa! I don’t like this!’ says Chapman.

‘There’s background noise all over the place and it’s ability to feel the bottom with its sonar is compromised because of the gently sloping sand and muddy seabed. Basically, it loses its geography.’

This is all solid science, backed up by evolutionary biologists such as Ben Garrod, and it explains why the whales are in the North Sea, looking lost, but what makes the animals beach themselves?

‘Sperm whales feed on deep-sea squid, and obviously they can’t find any in the North Sea,’ says Chapman.’ To make things worse, they also derive their fluid intake from their food, so before long you have an animal that’s confused, hungry and thirsty.

‘The North Sea is like a funnel, and once they stray south of Dogger Bank they’re in increasingly shallow water, and almost invariably get stranded. One might get into trouble and call out, and others rush to help—they’re exceptionally communal and communicative animals, which explains why some end up getting beached together.’

Dead whales on beaches are both a tragedy and an expensive logistical nightmare
Dead whales on beaches are both a tragedy and an expensive logistical nightmare

As for the suggestion that submarines or offshore windfarms might have created the current catastrophe, Chapman is somewhat sceptical. ‘Modern technology could be a contributing factor,’ he says. ‘But this has happened before, remember. This stranding event is bigger than anything recorded for centuries, but that could be because the population is recovering since the hunting of sperm whales in the North Atlantic was finally stopped in 1980.’

A small flash of a silver lining to an otherwise cetacean-sized grey cloud, perhaps, but conservationists and whale-lovers aren’t the only ones hoping such strandings don’t become a regular feature of the northern winter, with the clear-up bill for the colossal carcasses coming in at a whopping £26,000 in Skegness.

What to do if YOU find a stranded whale or dolphin

  1. Get help. You need to call in the experts. Lots of countries have specialist networks you can contact. In England, start with these: 01825 765 546 (British Divers Marine Life Rescue) or 08705 555 999 (RSPCA)
  1. Keep people, and especially children and dogs away. The animal will already be extremely stressed.
  1. Calmly approach and make sure the animal’s blowhole is not blocked with sand or underwater. If you can, safely keep the animal’s skins wet with water, but be very careful not to get water down the blowhole.
  1. Definitely do not attempt to drag the whale or dolphin back to the water. This may result in serious injury to you and the animal.
  1. Wait for the experts to arrive, remaining mindful that these are large, powerful creatures in distress.