Ten Pilot Whales Beach in Snæfellsnes

A pod of ten pilot whales beached in Álftafjörður on the Snæfellsnes peninsula in West Iceland on Sunday. RÚV reports that most of the whales were dead when a team of biologists and a veterinarian arrived on the scene, but two survived the ordeal.

The West Iceland Nature Research Center received a call around 2:00pm alerting them to the pilot whales’ dire situation. When the team arrived, they found one whale swimming just offshore from where the rest of its pod had beached. One of the beached animals was still alive but having trouble breathing as it was stuck on its side and the tide was coming in.

Screenshot, Náttúrufræðistofnun

The team was able to shift the beached whale back onto its belly so it could breathe properly and then helped move it back into the water. The animal was weak but recovered quickly and swam back to its companion. One of the whales “called to its friends several times,” said one of the biologists, “but, of course, it got no answers.”

The biologists said they needed a long moment to recover after rescuing the beached whale, but the emotional toll didn’t end there. They say that it’s clear that the two surviving whales don’t intend to leave the area while the rest of their pod lies dead on the beach. If they don’t leave the area, however, the biologists believe that it won’t be long before they beach on a nearby shore themselves.

The Nature Research Center urges people travelling in the area to keep an eye out for the whales and to immediately report any beaching incident to local police at 898-6638. Police will then contact Center employees to come and aid the animals.

Year in Review 2019: Nature

Vatnajökull

Spanning across glaciers, whales, and extreme weather, here’s a summary of Iceland’s biggest nature news stories of 2019.

Glacier goodbye

Iceland made international headlines this August when a memorial ceremony was held for Ok glacier, the country’s first glacier lost to climate change. The monument installed at the site of the former glacier is styled as a letter to the future, reading in part “This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”

Early in the year, many Icelanders said they had changed some of their behaviour due to climate change, while Icelandic youth started a weekly climate strike in February. The government hasn’t been inactive on the issue, instituting small changes like a ban on plastic bags and larger ones like a new ISK 140 million ($1.1 million/€1 million) climate fund.

Whale beachings

While there was no whaling conducted in Iceland this summer for the first time in 17 years, the gentle giants seem to be facing other threats. A large number of beached whales were found in the country throughout the summer, either as individuals or in groups as large as 50 whales. An international investigation is now looking into whether navy sonar devices could be causing whales (which use sonar to navigate) to become disoriented.

Animal ailments

In spring, the first cases of acquired equine polyneuropathy (AEP) were confirmed in Icelandic horses this year. The disease, which affects the animals’ nervous system, first appeared in Scandinavia 25 years ago. AEP is not contagious, and most horses recover fully from the disease, though in Sweden and Norway up to 30% must be put down as a result of it.

A much smaller animal made headlines in the summertime: the sandfly, also known as biting midge. Though the insect is not new to Iceland, it has been accosting locals in South and Southwest Iceland earlier in the year and in greater numbers than usual. Sandflies are tiny and not easily seen, but their bites are said to be more painful than those of mosquitoes (of which Iceland luckily still has none).

Geology

While Iceland’s volcanoes remained calm in 2019, earthquakes let themselves be felt, most notably in an earthquake swarm in Northeast Iceland in late March and on the Reykjanes peninsula in Southwest Iceland in December. For a geologically active country these events, just like this year’s glacial flood in South Iceland, are nothing out of the ordinary.

Weather

As usual, Iceland had its fair share of notable weather in 2019. While in 2018 most of the country experienced a cold, rainy summer, this year rewarded residents with an unusually warm spring, with temperatures in April and May well above average, as well as more sunny, dry weather than usual in most parts of the country. The spring was a bit too dry, in fact, putting pressure on South Iceland’s water systems and putting farmers’ hay harvest at risk. In July, Iceland felt the effects of the heatwave hitting mainland Europe (admittedly milder than elsewhere), with temperatures of 25.9°C (78.6°F) recorded in North Iceland and 26.9°C (80.4°F) in South Iceland. High temperatures led to a thunderstorm in the same month, a rare occurrence in Iceland’s cool climate.

Winter storm

The year’s weather ended with a bang, bringing the worst winter storm the country has seen in years. Hurricane-force winds, snow, and ice made travel in Iceland virtually impossible between December 9 and 10. The storm also caused widespread power outages in North Iceland, some of which lasted up to a week. One tragic casualty resulted from the weather when a 16-year-old who was helping clear ice from a power station fell into a river and died. Local authorities in the worst-affected regions criticised the government’s failure to update the region’s infrastructure and ensure reserve power.

Investigate Navy’s Role in Whale Beachings

whale

The last two years have been record-breaking in the number of whales beached on Iceland’s shores, Vísir reports. MP Andrés Ingi Jónsson wants to know whether the incidents are connected to increased submarine activity in Iceland’s waters, and in particular, the use of sonar equipment. Though an international investigation into whale beaching in the area is ongoing, it has proved difficult to obtain information on military activity that could be affecting whales’ behaviour.

Whale beachings more frequent

In the last decade, 400 whales have been beached along Iceland’s coast. Of those 400, 200 were beached in the last two years alone. Andrés Ingi addressed the incidents last September, inquiring whether sonar from submarines and navy ships could be behind the rise in incidents. He also asked whether the use of sonobuoys, ejected from aircraft or ships to search for submarines, were causing whales (which use sonar to navigate) to become disoriented.

Military information withheld

Andrés Ingi’s enquiry was addressed in a statement from the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture, which reads “a multinational study is underway to investigate the causes of unusual numbers of bottlenose whale and beaked whale beachings in 2018 on the shores of many countries in the North Atlantic, including here in Iceland. The presence of warships and naval exercises that took place in the summer of 2018 are considered in that regard. However, it has been difficult to obtain information from military authorities.” The statement also remarks that no research has been conducted in Iceland on the effects of marine traffic which uses powerful sonar.

In response to the statement, Andrés Ingi has submitted an inquiry to the Minister for Foreign Affairs asking how often aircraft have taken off from Keflavík Airport to search for submarines in the past five years and how many sonobuoys such planes deploy on average. He also inquires into the frequency, volume, and typical duration of the sonar equipment used in such activities, and whether its effect on marine life, particularly whales, has been researched.

Sonar could disorient

“Anti-submarine aircraft works in such a way that the aircraft flies low over the ocean’s surface and is shooting down buoys that emit sonar signals like whales use to navigate in the ocean,” Andrés stated. “So it could very well be that it has an effect on whales getting lost and coming up on land.”

Andrés Ingi expressed his understanding of the fact that some military information must be kept private, stating, however, “the fundamental question must be something that the government wants to answer. The fact that the navy is shooting down loud buoys around the country which could be herding whales up onto land.”

Four Whales Stranded, Three Saved

Four pilot whales stranded near Ólafsvík, West Iceland yesterday evening, mbl.is reports. Three of the whales managed to return to sea of their own accord, while one died in the shallows. The whales were part of a large pod numbering some hundred animals, which was swimming 100-200m (330-650ft) from the shore.

Pilot whale pods have been seen close to shore very often this summer in West and Southwest Iceland. Around 50 pilot whales stranded near Garður, Southwest Iceland just earlier this month. Rescue workers managed to save 30 of them.

Kristinn Jónasson, mayor of Snæfellsbær, says a pilot whale pod has been spotted in the ocean near Ólafsvík this summer. “Three weeks ago there was one out at Rif, around 150 of them, then people came on jet skis and drove them out.”

Experts from the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute measured the dead beached whale and took samples from the corpse around noon today.

Best Practices for Saving Beached Whales

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.”

Jewellers Want Teeth and Bones From Massive Whale Beaching

beached whales

Icelandic jewellers are interested in buying teeth and bones from the carcasses of the fifty pilot whales which beached themselves on Snæfellsnes peninsula. The whales were found in Löngufjörur beach in Snæfellesnes in last week by American travellers. The landowner of Litla-Hraun, where the whales were found, warns the public that travelling in the area can be dangerous.

The whale beaching is thought to be the largest one in more than thirty years, as more than fifty whales beached themselves. Þorgrímur Leifsson is one two land-owners in the area. “It’s naturally a little bit weird and sad as well to see the whales there next to their little calves,” he said.

Specialists from the Marine Research Institute will head to the area tomorrow to inspect the area and collect samples. According to Þorgrímur, the animals will not be disposed of. “We plan to go and remove their teeth, then we’ll wait for the bones to reveal themselves and we’ll see what we’ll do with them. A jeweller contacted me and he wants both bones and teeth.” Þorgrímur says he doesn’t know how much the teeth and bones are worth, but a Reykjavík jeweller has already stated interest in them. There’s already considerable traffic in the area. “When I arrived yesterday there were eight planes, as well as jeeps, motorcycles, and quite a crowd. I believe it’s not safe for everyone to go there. You need to know the area to get down there. People need to respect the sea,” Þorgrímur explained. “It’s not the plan for the public to head down there, as it’s really quite dangerous.”

Marine biologist Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir said that there are any number of reasons that a pod of whales might accidentally swim into a dangerous area. For one thing, pilot whales are pack animals with strong social bonds, and do not easily abandon members of their pod.

Edda Elísabet also explained that there are strong tidal and seabed currents in the Löngufjörur area and that this 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. That also might account for the whales getting stranded when the tide went out.

Fifty Whales Found Dead on West Iceland Beach

beached whales

Fifty pilot whales were found dead on the shore of Löngufjörur in a sparsely populated part of the Snæfellsnes peninsula on Thursday, RÚV reports. A group of American tourists on a helicopter tour made the discovery and one of them, Greta Carlson, captured a video of the shocking sight and the group also reported it to local authorities in Stykkishólmur.

Greta said that she’d never seen anything like it and noted that some of the whale carcasses showed signs of having been cut or otherwise injured. She said she wanted to document the discovery in case the pictures and video she took could be used to somehow prevent a similar incident occurring in the future.

[media-credit name=”Screenshot from RÚV / Greta Carlson” align=”alignnone” width=”609″][/media-credit]

Marine biologist Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir said that there are any number of reasons that a pod of whales might accidentally swim into a dangerous area. For one thing, pilot whales are pack animals with strong social bonds, and do not easily abandon members of their pod.

Edda Elísabet also explained that there are strong tidal and seabed currents in the Löngufjörur area and that this 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. That also might account for the whales getting stranded when the tide went out.