So I was sitting there trying to figure how long I’d have to spend at the gym to work off all my stress pounds, when I was inexplicably reminded of a story I read last week about beached whales.
Beached whales have always been a source of fascination for me. You hardly ever hear about beached squid or beached guppies, so why do whales have such a reputation for flinging themselves ashore? I’ve entertained several theories:
- Whale expeditions are led by male whales who refuse to ask for directions. This might be responsible for a few beachings, but it certainly doesn’t explain all of them. Besides, new age sensitive male whales now have a public awareness campaign complete with bumper (dorsal fin) stickers that read: Friends don’t let friends drive into fjords.
- Unlike fish, whales travel in pods. Thus, whales are unschooled, and never took geography classes.
- Whales have been paying attention to recent discoveries in genetics and learned they are more closely related to hippos than they are fish. Attempts to visit their cousins have been disastrous.
- Trendy creatures, whales keep trying to get into the whole surfing scene, but end up being washed ashore after catching a perfect wave.
- Whales have heard about that evolution thing and wanted to try being land animals for a while, forgetting the part where they have to evolve legs first.
- Beached whales are actually thrown ashore by mafia whale goons, as punishment for breaking the orca omerta.
- Beached whales heard ads for the latest all-you-can-eat seafood buffet at Red Lobster.
- All the whales we find on beaches are actually stupid teenagers who had been daring each other to see how far up the beach they could get. This is known as the tide pod challenge.
- Beached whales are actually avid movie goers trying to reach a screening of films like The Shipping News. (Has anyone ever attempted to correlate beachings with releases of previous movies like Titanic or Whale Music? I don’t know).
Alas though, it seems like all my research efforts were for nothing, because the answer to why whales beach themselves seems to have been right under our noses all this time: navy sonar.
According to an interim report into a mass whale stranding in the Bahamas says that US navy midrange tactical sonar was to blame. Apparently military operations had been going on in the area for an unusually long time.
Now, before you scoff at this theory, consider these two things: a) Whales use their own sonar to communicate and navigate and b) how angry, confused and desperate to escape did you feel the last time you were trapped beside a car playing really, really loud country and western music during rush hour?
So what does this mean exactly? Well for starters, we’re going to have to find a way to use sonar in a way that doesn’t mess with whale heads. We might have to turn down the volume, change frequency, or possibly build structures to block our sonar (i.e., whaling walls). Or it might involve an international campaign to have volunteers knit huge, waterproof earmuffs. (You laugh, but thousands of people knitted sweaters for the oil soaked penguins of Phillip Island, near Australia).
A better way would be to devote more energy to understanding how whales talk and navigate. For all we know, a navy sonar ‘boop boop beep’ might mean ‘your mother dresses you funny!’ in whalish. If we had a Whales-English dictionary, we might be able to warn them away from our ships, or for that matter, listen to what they can tell us about the seas. Perhaps a project like this requires a big name sponsor, like, say, the Prince of Wales.
In any case, what with increasing ocean going traffic, we’d better start translating. We wouldn’t want to hurt them on porpoise.