Two separate pods of pilot whales have gotten beached on Icelandic shores this summer, RÚV reports, leading experts to apprise locals of how best they can respond to such situations. Marine biologist Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir says that such beachings are becoming a yearly occurrence – an indirect result of warming ocean temperatures – and likely happen when whales pursue their prey too close to the shoreline.
In mid-July, 50 pilot whales were found dead on the shore of Löngufjörur in a sparsely populated part of the Snæfellsnes peninsula in West Iceland. Edda Elísabet assessed the situation at the time, saying that there were many reasons the animals could have gotten stranded. For one thing, she explained, pilot whales are pack animals with strong social bonds, and do not easily abandon members of their pod. Moreover, strong tidal and seabed currents in the Löngufjörur area could have made it harder for the whales to get back out to sea. Pilot whales depend on sonar for navigation, but sonar would have been quite limited in the area, which also could account for the whales getting stranded when the tide went out.
Only last week, however, 50 more pilot whales beached in front of the Útskálakirkja seaside church in Garður, on the Reykjanes peninsula in Southwest Iceland. This time, the outcome was far more positive. Rescuers worked through the night and were able to save 30 whales.
Keep them wet, keep them calm
Edda Elísabet has important advice for anyone who encounters beached whales in Iceland. First and foremost, she said, the police should be contacted immediately. Police will then take care to notify the right people, the better to move rescue efforts in the right direction.
Next, she said, you should attend to the animals, albeit with extreme care. “One of the most important things you can do if the whale is alive,” she said, “is to keep it damp.” Whales are poorly suited to dry environments and unable to control their body temperatures on land, which means they overheat easily. Beached whales also need to be protected from the sun, to prevent burning.
Beached whales will be under an enormous amount of strain and distress, says Edda Elísabet, and easily disturbed by loud noises and abrupt movements, such as people just splashing water on them without them being able to see where it’s coming from. “We’ve seen that if there is someone with each whale, placing their hands on it and speaking gently to it or humming or creating a calm environment, that they seem to relax,” she explained.
There have been instances abroad of people contracting illnesses from dolphins and other related species, and so Edda Elísabet says it’s also important that rescuers wear gloves and be sure that the animals do not breathe in their faces. Professional responders don’t take such risks, she noted, and the public shouldn’t either.
Edda Elísabet said that the rescue efforts in Garði were so successful because they focused first on saving the adult females. “If a calf is released first, it’s likely that it will beach itself again because it’s chasing its mother. So it’s important to prioritise healthy females.” However, if a female is not in good condition, it can be dangerous to release her, because she may not be able to lead the pod to safety.
Following the food
Asked about what is causing whales to beach at this rate, Edda Elísabet said that research is still ongoing, but that there is evidence that whale migration patterns around Iceland are changing. They are increasingly traveling around the western and southwestern coasts of the country, most likely following their prey to unfamiliar hunting grounds.
“It’s very likely that their prey is leading this. Their food sources are more sensitive to sea temperatures. In this instance, we’re probably seeing them chasing mackerel and it’s possible that they’re pursuing mackerel more often [because] they’ve had a bad season for squid,” she explained. “Mackerel comes in very close to land, and that could explain why we’ve got a lot of them just off the country’s southwestern and western coasts.”