Overwhaleming!

Earlier this month when 20 short finned pilot whales got stranded on the beaches of Sampur, along the north east coast of Sri Lanka, the public were alarmed. Having suffered from a number of natural disasters in the recent past, while also not experiencing a beaching of pilot whales before, the people seemed to link the event to the discovering of a large number of dead fish in Wattuwakal in the Nandikadal lagoon as well as a strange cloud formation over Kayts several days later, while rumours were rife that these incidents were signs of imminent natural disasters.

Though the exact reason for the stranding of the pilot whales remains unknown, marine experts and environmentalists now dismiss such claims of impending doom. According to them, pilot whales are one of the most common species known to get stranded and the incident is not a forewarning of a natural disaster. While claiming that several reasons could have caused the pod of whales to strand, experts commend the efforts of the Sri Lanka Navy in saving the mammals despite the incident being unique and not faced by them previously.

Unrelated incidents

Senior Scientist of the Environmental Studies Division attached to the National Aquatic Resources, Research and Development Agency (NARA) Dr. Niroshan Wickramaarachchi stresses that each incident being linked by the public are in fact separate and unrelated incidents. “These incidents are not connected and have taken place for different reasons” he says, adding that any theories that they signify an imminent natural disaster are purely a misconception.

According to Dr. Wickramaarachchi while the stranding of the pilot whales can be due to a number of reasons, the public should not get alarmed and fall for the misconceptions being shared on various platforms, a fact that eminent environmentalist Jagath Gunawardena agrees with. “People should not fall for the fear mongering of alarmists,” he says; the cause of stranding may lie on a number reasons while none of them signifies an oncoming tsunami or any other natural disaster situation as feared by the people.

However, the inability to determine the exact cause which led to the stranding of the whales could have perhaps also played a part in increasing the interest of the public and causing them to be concerned.

But, explaining the situation, according to Dr. Wickramarachchi, experts are unable to determine the cause only because the particular pod of whales should be followed and tracked prior to the incident taking place. “Unless we follow them before, it is difficult to find the exact cause as their behaviours and surroundings could have led to them getting stranded on the beach” he says adding that once the incident occurs it is a demanding task to discover the precise reason for the stranding.

Several reasons

As experts reiterated that the stranding of the Pilot Whales is not a sign of an approaching natural disaster, expert Marine Biologist Dr. Asha de Vos elaborated on the possible reasons which could have led to this particular pod getting beached in Sampur.

“Looking at previous reports it is noticeable that pilot whales are in fact a species that tend to get stranded often,” she points out, adding that it is a common occurrence the world over despite it happening for the first time in Sri Lanka. “For whatever reasons they are known as the marine species that strand often,” she says.

According to Dr. Asha de Vos one scientific theory is that a sick whale in the pod could have led the group on to the beach leaving the whole pod stranded. “They are very social animals and work in groups, so the pod could end up getting beached as they would follow a sick pod member on to the beach,” she explains adding that this is one of the main theories of marine scientists who have researched into the beaching of marine mammals.

“Sonar systems could also affect the mammals as they communicate in sound waves thus taking them away from their path,” she says. However, according to her this theory has been ruled out after consultation with the Sri Lanka Navy that confirmed that no sonar mapping was being done in the area at the time.

Dr. Wickramaarachchi says, another possible reason could be the following of prey by the pod. “These mammals have group behaviours so they would follow prey as a pod and could result in them getting stranded when they come close to shore” he says.

Meanwhile, other theories being put forward claim that the possible stranding could have occurred due to the early monsoon in the Bay of Bengal and the weather patterns; while other experts suggest the pod would have been attracted by the increasing numbers of prey in the sea arriving from the rivers due to the recent floods experienced by the country.

Commendation for rescuers

Meanwhile, the experts have also commended the efforts of the Sri Lanka Navy in saving the beached whales and their handling of the situation.

According to Dr. Asha de Vos, marine mammals cannot survive on land for too long. “There is no support for the weight of their bodies when they are out of the water,” she explains adding that this in turn causes their bodies to collapse on their organs causing them to suffer renal failure and die.

“Therefore, it is paramount to return these animals back to the sea as soon as possible or face a large number of dead animals” she says.

Despite being faced with such a situation for the first time Dr. de Vos says the Sri Lanka Navy acted fast. “They worked fast to return the animals to the sea and managed to lead them all out to deeper waters,” she says, commending the naval staff involved in the rescue of the precious mammals.

Jagath Gunawardena too had similar words for the country’s naval force. “If they had not acted as they did we could have been faced with a large number of dead whales as was the case in Pondicherry, India in 2016,” he points out, adding that therefore, the efforts of the Navy should be recognized and commended. 

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