Beached Whale near San Felipe

San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

There was a story in the air about a beached whale at one of the south campos. So JC Whitfield and I saddled up my old Suzuki Samurai and Whale on beach near san felipebucked the last ten miles of the 40 mile trip in search of it. What we saw as we approached the beach from the km66 turnoff was an enormous dun-colored upwelling of flesh, the size of a Hollywood WWII German bunker. Three vultures, their red heads like fallen ankle socks, strutted across the azimuth of the beast like real estate salesmen showing each other a prime piece of property. They relinquished their throne when they saw the Suzuki encroaching. There went the neighborhood.

The whale's body looked like a peeled grape. There didn't seem to be any skin left on it. It's great bulk appeared twisted and misshaped by the sheer weight of itself, rolling and melting in places to find a balance between its skeleton and the unfamiliar demands of terrestrial gravity. The mountains in the distance were a startling contrast, accentuating the planet's own search for balance, drawing the eye to the high relief of the landscape's subcutaneous stratum, perhaps to show an alternative to a life of lipid chemistry. The foreground of gelatinous collapse against the background of granite longevity brought to mind the brevity of life, even one such as mountainous as this whale.

Downwind of the carcass, the air was an acid of stink. It was a smell that inspired the nearby vultures to dream of banquets and delectables, but drove JC and I to scramble around to the whale's upwind side. We marveled at its length and the strange way the elements, or perhaps an illness, had contorted it and caused great lengths of entrails to erupt from its jaws.

Why do whales become beached and die? Below are some explanations found from a search on the internet, followed by photos of the south campo whale.

...from an editorial on
The Canary Islands authorities have asked Nato to halt a naval exercise in the area, fearing it may be responsible for the death of 17 whales washed up on the coast of Fuerteventura and Lanzarote this week.

The heads of six Cuvier's beaked whales have been taken to the veterinary department of Las Palmas University for examination, in particular to discover if their inner ears were damaged by pressure from sonar devices.

The exercise Neo Tapon 2002, organised by the Spanish navy and involving about 30 Nato ships and submarines, is being held in the Atlantic between the Canaries and Gibraltar.

They include the US frigate De Wert, which specialises in anti-submarine warfare.

Two months ago a new sonar system, Surtass LFA, was authorised for US naval use, despite fierce lobbying by conservationists who claimed that sonar had been responsible for the mass death of whales in the Mediterranean and off the Bahamas.

The US government gave the navy a five-year exemption from the Marine Mammal Protection Act after tests led to the conclusion that the system was unlikely to injure marine mammals.

One of the independent marine biologists conducting the tests, Dr Kurt Fristrup, said: "If the stranding is tightly correlated in time and space to the Nato exercise, this will be another clear indication of an environmental issue that must be studied."

A Greenpeace spokesman in the Canaries said the link was clear, but a Nato spokesman said that by the time the whales were found dead the ships involved were 500 miles to the north-east.

The Surtass LFA system can transmit signals as powerful as 215 decibels and the US navy says its use is vital in helping to detect super-quiet submarines. Some scientists believe that a whale's eardrums can explode at 180 decibels.

Beaked whales which were studied after the Bahamas incident in March 2000, when eight died, were found to be bleeding from the ears, and there was evidence of damage consistent with an intense pressure injury.

Sometimes whales are still alive when they become stranded, most often when they are in groups. Several hypotheses have been put forward to explain these strandings that likely have multible causes. The whales could be sick or injured. Their sense of orientation can be affected by sickness or parasites. It is believed that whales use terrestrial magnetic field and coastal topography for orientation purposes. Thus, a disturbance of these magnetic fields or odd topography could lead to navigational errors. Typically, whales that are put back in the water return to shore and strand anew on the same beach. Their reference system may erroneously tell them that deeper water lies in this direction. Stranding of live animals often happen in the same place, in areas with specific characteristics. Pelagic species that are used to great oceanic depths may be caught by the tide in shallow estuaries. In the case of mass strandings, whales may be following a disoriented leader, or they could be swimming towards an animal that has already stranded and is emitting a distress call. In short, stranding remains a somewhat mysterious phenomenon.

The cause of beaching is not definitively known. However, there is some evidence that anti-submarine warfare sonar and other underwater noises (such as those emitted from oil drills) are of a sufficient intensity to cause the whales to surface too rapidly. The whales suffer hemorrhaging and decompression sickness due to the rapid pressure change. The resulting disorientation could then cause the whale to become beached.

Ken Balcomb, a zoologist, specializing in the study of whales, particularly the Orcas populations that inhabit the Strait of Juan de Fuca between Washington and Vancouver Island, has investigated mass beachings of whales. In March 2000, he investigated a mass beaching of beaked whales in his study population stranded near his Bahamas field station following a U.S. Navy sonar exercise. The specimens he collected provided the first evidence of pressure traumas that can be “caused” by sonar, although the precise mechanism for damage is still unknown.

It is also controversially theorized that beachings could be suicide attempts by whales, perhaps to end some suffering. Those theories are based on the assumption that whales are highly intelligent animals capable of planning their own deaths.

Another controversial theory, researched by Jim Berkland, a former Geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, attributes the strange behavior to radical changes in the Earth's magnetic field just prior to earthquakes and in the general area of earthquakes. He says when this occurs, it interferes with sea mammals and even migratory birds ability to navigate, which explains the mass beachings. He says even dogs and cats can sense the disruptions, which explains elevated rates of runaway pets in local newspapers a day or two prior to earthquakes. Research on Earth's magnetic field and how it is affected by moving tectonic plates and earthquakes is ongoing.

Click on any thumbnail to enlarge
beached whale near san felipe
san felipe south campo beached whale
San Felipe whale
Whale near san felipe
dead whale in upper sea of cortez
beached whale in upper baja