At the end of last year, 337 sei whales were found beached off the coast of Southern Chile in what researchers are calling one of the biggest whale strandings ever recorded. Scientists were able to count 305 bodies alongside 32 skeletons of whales using aerial and satellite photography. As with many other whale beachings, the cause is a mystery, and the fact that this particular incident happened with so many whales simultaneously is concerning, for various reasons.
According to Carolina Simon Gutstein, a paleontologist at the University of Chile, “They probably died at sea, we don’t really know exactly where, but they didn’t just die by stranding.” (source)
Sei whales belong to the same family as humpback and blue whales — the rorquals family — which is the largest group of baleen whales. What also makes this case unusual is the fact that these whales are almost never seen gathering in large groups. Sadly, sei whales are an endangered species.
The last known instance of a mass beaching like this occurred between 1999 and 2001, when about 600 gray whales were stranded on the North American Pacific Coast from Alaska to Mexico.
Scientists remain puzzled as to the cause of these deaths. While we know that whales are extremely intelligent beings, we know surprisingly little else about these creatures.
Perhaps there is something we’re missing? I thought it would be a great idea to use this incident to call attention to some other concerning issues that relate to this topic.
Military Sonar Testing
The United States military has been conducting underwater testing of explosive weapons and sonar devices for some time now. These tests have taken place in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, including the Gulf of Mexico, and are happening now, having commenced in 2014 and set to run all the way to 2019.
No definitive link has been established between these tests and this particular case, but that doesn’t mean we should rule it out, and while whales have, admittedly, been found beached before such testing took place, we should at least consider whether this military activity is at least a contributing factor. In any case, it certainly doesn’t hurt to create awareness about it.
Sonar testing is, at the very least, doing some real damage. In 2009 Scientific American released an article examining the effects of military sonar testing on marine life, confirming that it can and has lead to both injury and death of marine animals. They also note that these animals make every effort to escape the noise:
Unfortunately for many whales, dolphins and other marine life, the use of underwater sonar (short for sound navigation and ranging) can lead to injury and even death. Sonar systems—first developed by the U.S. Navy to detect enemy submarines—generate slow-rolling sound waves topping out at around 235 decibels; the world’s loudest rock bands top out at only 130. These sound waves can travel for hundreds of miles under water, and can retain an intensity of 140 decibels as far as 300 miles from their source.
These rolling walls of noise are no doubt too much for some marine wildlife. While little is known about any direct physiological effects of sonar waves on marine species, evidence shows that whales will swim hundreds of miles, rapidly change their depth (sometime leading to bleeding from the eyes and ears), and even beach themselves to get away from the sounds of sonar.
According to National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) policy analyst Michael Jasny, a study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B shows that even mid-frequency noises disrupt feeding patterns in baleen whales and could negatively affect entire populations. The NRDC cites multiple mass strandings on beaches after sonar has been used, including 200 beached melon-headed whales in 2004 off the coast of Hawaii — one of many examples.
The Navy is not denying these facts. They have admitted that most of the deaths would come from detonation of explosives, sonar testing, or animals being hit by ships. Although I do not trust Navy estimates, according to their computer models this activity could kill hundreds of whales. The Navy said it developed the estimates by totalling the hours it will test and practice with sonar, torpedoes, missiles, explosives, and other equipment for five years. This testing will be (and already has been) responsible for the death of thousands. According to Green Peace, the government estimates 138,500 whales and dolphins will be injured or killed.(2)
Take action by sending an email to The Honorable Charles T. Hagel, U.S. Secretary of Defense. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Feel free to use this sample letter provided by PETA. Sign a petition here as well as here.
Corporate interests are also at play here, as exploration companies are allowed to use dangerous blasts of noise to search for offshore oil and gas. The U.S. Department of the Interior is considering allowing geophysical companies that work for the oil and gas corporations to use these techniques in the Atlantic Ocean, from Delaware to Florida:
There are no noise-cancelling headphones to stop the U.S. Navy’s 235-decibel pressure waves of unbearable pinging and metallic shrieking. At 200 Db, the vibrations can rupture your lungs, and above 210 Db, the lethal noise can bore straight through your brain until it hemorrhages that delicate tissue. If you’re not deaf after this devastating sonar blast, you’re dead.
This is the real life of marine mammals destroyed by the U.S. Navy’s all-out acoustic war on the world’s oceans. The collateral damage of this high-intensity military sonar is shocking. But because all these millions of dying whales or dolphins are too often out of human sight, they’re also out of mind. (source)
Orca researcher Ken Balcomb perhaps described it best when he dubbed this “acoustic holocaust.” Scientific American sees the situation as no less dire, calling military sonar a brutal and inhumane death sentence.
Dead Whales Bringing Us A Message In Their Stomachs
A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that at least 88 percent of the Earth’s ocean surface is polluted with plastic debris. The study was conducted by researchers from the University of Cadiz, Spain, as well as the University of Western Australia. These findings obviously raise significant concerns over the well-being of marine life, climate, food chains, and much more. Plastic materials were introduced in the 1950s, and ever since, the total global production of plastic has increased exponentially and will continue to do so over the coming decades unless we change our ways and adopt a new approach.
Despite having numerous ways to operate in a fashion that is more harmonious with the planet, we continue to choose to destroy our planet at every turn, and we simply can’t afford to do that anymore.
As if to signal the direness of the ocean’s plight, whales have been showing up dead on multiple beaches, bringing us a message with stomachs full of plastic. For example, in the summer of July 2013 a sperm whale was stranded on Tershelling, a Northern island in the Netherlands. The whale had swallowed 56 different plastic items that totalled over 37 pounds. In April 2010 a gray whale died after stranding itself on a West Seattle beach; it was found to have over 20 plastic bags, small towels, surgical gloves, plastic pieces, duct tape, and more in its system. And in March of 2013, a dead sperm whale washed up on Spain’s South coast which had swallowed 17kg of plastic waste.
The list goes on and on. Keep in mind, these are only the whales who choose to beach themselves or have washed up on shore; there are surely countless other whales and marine animals suffering the same fate, unbeknownst to us.
Unfortunately, these beachings are not uncommon events. In 1989 a stranded sperm whale in the Lavezzi Islands died of a stomach obstruction after accidentally ingesting plastic bags and 100 feet of plastic sheeting. A paper published in 1990 reports that a sperm whale in Iceland died due to a complete obstruction of the gut with plastic marine debris. In August 2008, a sperm whale washed up dead on the beach near Point Reyes, California, with 450 pounds of fishing net, plastic bags, and rope in its stomach (see picture to the left). In 2008, the California Marine Mammal Stranding Database recorded another sperm whale with enormous amounts of plastic and fish netting in its stomach.
I’ll stop there, as there are countless examples.
The effects of our plastic consumption are becoming more and more visible. By now, you’ve probably heard of “The Great Garbage Patch,” an area the size of Queensland, Australia where there are approximately one million tonnes of plastic congregated in the ocean. Drag a net in any area of this part of the ocean and you will pick up toxic, discarded plastic. We’ve shown this video before, but here it is again, just in case you missed it.
If the global elite pooled all their resources and decided to clean up the planet, they could do it. Unfortunately, we’ve become an ego driven, greedy society, caring more for profit and economic growth than the well-being of our home and those who dwell within it.
A collective desire to change these things is the only way we will make a difference. It’s time to educate ourselves about what is really happening on the planet and bring awareness to the most important issues we must tackle today. This is why alternative media outlets are so important; they bring awareness to and shed light on the issues corporate media hardly covers.
Our planet is calling on us to change our ways, and the change starts with you. Toxic industrial practices must cease. New, clean, green technology is available and we could easily replace all of these plastics with hemp or other alternatives. We have so many solutions, yet we do not implement them.
Solutions may include manufacturing plastics with hemp or other biodegradable products. Another example would be developing cleaning technologies, as in the story of 19 year old Boyan Slat, who developed a device with the capacity to remove 7,250,000 tonnes of plastic and garbage from the world’s oceans in just 5 years. Boyan, now 20, and CEO of The Ocean Cleanup Project, has just announced that his project will come into fruition this year. You can read more about that here.
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