Carcasses of hundreds of Baleen whales, washed ashore near Tiruchendur beach in the district of Chennai. Out of about 250 (and counting) whales that got stuck in shallow waters or washed ashore, 45 whales (and counting) washed over DEAD on the beach. The local fisherman have been constantly putting in effort to push these whales back in to the sea, saving the lives of hundreds of these large creatures.
“This is an unusual thing… an unusual mortality incident, we have to find out the reason,” said Marine Scientist Velumani of the Fisheries Department.
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In this unidentified phenomenon, short finned pilot whales were washed ashore, of which 37 were adults and the rest were sub adults, between the regions of Kallamozhi and Manapad in Thoothukudi district in Tamil Nadu.

Marine scientists working in the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve say that these short-finned pilot whales venture deep in to the water, diving up to 1,000 metres deep inside the sea. They form stable matrilineal kinship groups and usually spend their life in groups, with a leader. This particular group could have stranded while in search of food, their favorite being squids. Though this is just a guess, as not much is known of these massive creatures. In fact, the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species classifies it as ‘data deficient’.

“There could be many reasons…navy sonars could have caused it… or pollution… the reason is not immediately known and we don’t want to speculate,” Assistant Director of Tuticorin fisheries department, Xavier said.

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“We also have to study the the eco- system. The study would require the help of oceanographic experts also,” Velumani said.

Experts also “guess” that these whales must have washed ashore because of a low tide, or because of following a stranded whale, in turn scattering themselves from the group and losing direction and focus of travel.  Other reasons could be a low tide, that occurs pretty frequently in this part of the world, or may be some under water earthquake or similar disaster. They could also have stranded because of pollution or due to sonars emitted from ships and under water machinery.

“The stranding of these whales is rare. They don’t swim close to the coast,” says J.K. Patterson Edward, Director, Suganthi Devadason Marine Research Institute, Thoothukudi.

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A team from Fisheries College and Research Institute (FC&RI), Thoothukudi, attempted to research on the salinity and the amount of oxygen dissolved in the inshore region, both of which had resulted to be normal.

“These whales might have chased the prey in the inter – tidal areas during last phase of the high tide period [new moon day period] and later must have stranded because of the shallow depth created by receding tide, during which time they must have become disoriented,” says G. Sugumar, Dean, FC&RI.

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“The short-finned pilot whales use call dialects to communicate within the group. One of the animals could have been isolated after falling sick or in search of food. The other whales might have followed it and might have been stranded as they could not have communicated effectively within the group,” says M. Sakthivel, a scientist with Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, who specializes in cetaceans (marine mammals).

“The whales were exposed to air alone for six to eight hours. The younger ones responded well. Only on Wednesday, we will come to know [if the whales will survive],” says Deepak Bilgi, Wildlife Warden, Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park.

A team of researchers from the CMFRI is to study the case intensively and present a report to the officials. Though a large number of whales have been saved, an equally disastrous number of them have died and have been buried around different areas of the beach.

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A similar incident of whales washing across the shore was witnessed in 1973, where an even larger number of whales had died due to being disoriented. Their exact reason of getting washed ashore, just like in this case, remains unknown. Such phenomenon has also been seen in other parts of the world, with other marine animals like crabs, dolphins, etc.

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