Why do whales strand?
Whale strandings are complex events that involve various causes – anything from disease to extreme weather.
A stranded whale might be old or infested with parasites. It could have been poisoned by natural toxins or have had problems with birthing.
Coastlines may play a part in whale strandings. Whales chasing prey near shallow sloping beaches can strand. They can also be trapped by receding tides or swept off course by strong currents. Some people have suggested that abnormalities in the Earth’s magnetic field may also cause strandings.
Human-made noise and pollution, accidents involving boats, and entanglements with fishing gear add to whales’ mortality rate.
New Zealand, a land of strandings
Why so many strandings in New Zealand?
New Zealand’s landmass spans a wide range of ocean waters – from sub-tropical in the north to sub-Antarctic in the south. It presents a long, contorted coastline for whales to strand on. Deep water comes close to shore in many places. And shallow beaches with big tidal ranges provide areas where whales can swim at high tide but get caught at low tide.
What sorts of whales strand?
Because of New Zealand’s extensive coastline and range of waters, a great diversity of species strand – from coastal dolphins to oceanic and deep-water whales.
Mass strandings – all in it together?
Whales that strand in groups are usually highly social animals, open-ocean rather than coastal. This ‘social cohesion’ may well be their undoing. At sea, a whale may signal for help if in trouble. Closer to shore, this survival strategy may be disastrous – drawing the rest of the pod into stranding.