Why Do Whales Beach Themselves?

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A young humpback whale is barely clinging to life on an East Hampton beach after being washed ashore there Tuesday, according to multiple media reports.

You can see the whale in the below footage, lying still on the sand. Scientists believe the whale was abandoned by its mother, possibly because she was dying or dead. Most whales die at sea, and their bodies are never seen by people. Beachings generally occur when a very sick or weak whale no longer has the energy to stay afloat,

causing it to beach itself, or in this case, to have a wave do the job.

Another phenomena, called mass beachings, or mass strandings, involved a group of whales or dolphins getting stuck on shore. Scientists aren’t sure why those happen, though naval acoustic tests are one possibility, as are parasites or viruses that affect their navigation systems.

Experts also theorize that when one sick animal becomes stranded, its calls of distress can cause an entire pod to respond and strand themselves, too.

This 25-foot-long whale, just a year old, likely was dying of starvation before it landed on the eastern Long Island beach. Its eyes reveal that the whale is still alive, and experts on the scene have reported that they can hear it breathing.

“The actions of its body would indicate it’s in really tough shape,”

Charles Bowman, president of the Riverhead Foundation for Marine

Research and Preservation, told the Associated Press. “It’s not a candidate to

save. It’s a very young animal. It couldn’t survive on its own even if

it was healthy. It’s supposed to be with its mother.”

To end its suffering, researchers are considering whether or not the whale could be safely sedated and euthanized. They are concerned about public safety, however.

“You can’t put people in danger,” Bowman said, mentioning that spasms and thrashes could hurt researchers or beach-goers.

Bystanders, however, are upset that more isn’t being done to help the whale.

“I think there’s a lot they can do that they’re not doing right now,”

Alexa Wolf of East Hampton told a CBS affiliate there.

“I’m sad, I wish there was more they could do for it,” added Melisa Eame, also of East Hampton.

Depending on the available staff, the condition of the whale, and other factors, beached whales can sometimes be rescued. The effort is almost always arduous and difficult however, as evidenced by the faces of a rescue team who successfully saved a beached whale in Los Angeles.

“It really is heartbreaking for us, especially because it’s such a

young animal,” said Bowman. “We rescue mammals, sea turtles. We’re very

good at it, but you can’t win them all.”

Whales wind up on the tony Hamptons beaches every so often, particularly during early spring when the marine mammals are migrating towards northern food sources. Unfortunately, most of the Long Island-beached whales have died.

Dolphins, which also beach themselves there with even more frequency, have a “good success rate,” according to Bowman, since their smaller size allows them to be transferred to rehabilitation tanks. 

To see additional footage of the stranded humpback whale, please visit this NBC New York site.