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'Whale deaths remind us of our ocean's fragility'

PUBLISHED: 17:07 05 February 2016

Investigations have started on the second whale which has washed up on Old Hunstanton Beach, the second in the area within a week. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Investigations have started on the second whale which has washed up on Old Hunstanton Beach, the second in the area within a week. Picture: Matthew Usher.

© ARCHANT NORFOLK 2016

Many of us have been shocked by the photos of the whales washed up on our coastline in recent weeks. The immense size of the sperm whales (nearly 50ft long) combined with the tragedy of their death makes for an odd cocktail of wonder, horror and sadness.

Investigations have started on the second whale which has washed up on Old Hunstanton Beach, the second in the area within a week. Picture: Matthew Usher.Investigations have started on the second whale which has washed up on Old Hunstanton Beach, the second in the area within a week. Picture: Matthew Usher.

First, a bull whale became stranded at Hunstanton and died overnight, then days later, three further whales were found dead at Skegness in Lincolnshire and a further one has washed up at Wainfleet. They are believed to be members of the same pod, which has also been linked to other whales that stranded and died in the Netherlands and Germany earlier this month.

Yesterday, yet another live whale was washed up at Hunstanton and attempts were being made to refloat it – sadly it died last night.

As a youngster, I can remember finding a whale carcass at the beach. It was smaller than those we have seen recently and in an advanced state of putrefaction. I made the mistake of touching it and couldn’t wash the intense fishy odour off my hands for days.

Dealing with such a large dead creature is clearly a public health issue and clean-up operations are a big logistical challenge, requiring heavy machinery in rocky, hard to reach areas. That’s before you factor in the risk of the carcasses exploding as has happened in Lincolnshire.

Investigations have started on the second whale which has washed up on Old Hunstanton Beach, the second in the area within a week. Picture: Matthew Usher.Investigations have started on the second whale which has washed up on Old Hunstanton Beach, the second in the area within a week. Picture: Matthew Usher.

It’s no surprise that the public have been asked to stay away, although a part of me is pleased they don’t want to. The day we don’t care about these creatures, or have an innate curiosity in them (even if a bit ghoulish in these circumstances) is a sad day for nature. I have found the photos of these magnificent cetaceans hauntingly beautiful. Mind you, those seeking a souvenir from the whales are just plain odd (I hope it stinks their house out).

We can’t be sure whether this is just a natural occurrence or the fault of humans. Fossil records show us that whales were getting washed up on coastlines long before human civilisation began.

Multiple beachings are not unusual in sperm whales either; they have such strong bonds that the distress calls of one whale can lead to others following and getting into difficulty.

Human factors have been blamed for beachings in the past, including military sonar, where the pressure changes caused by loud sonar can result in disorientation or even haemorrhaging around the whale’s ears.

In this case, Dr Peter Evans, director of the Seawatch Foundation, believes the whales probably swam south through the North Sea looking for squid but became disorientated in the shallow waters around Norfolk.

We need to use this sense of shock and awe to care about how we treat our seas – using marine safe washing powder and not buying face scrubs containing plastic microbeads would be a good start.

The whale deaths are a reminder of the mystery of our oceans and the immense yet fragile inhabitants within.

•Follow Kate on Twitter @Kateblincoe.

•Read more from our columnists each day in the EDP.

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