Posted by: The ocean update | April 12, 2014

Greek Mass Stranding Investigation Begins ; One Whale Pregnant

Stranded dead mother at Kastri, Heraklion, SE Crete on 3/4/2014.

Stranded dead mother at Kastri, Heraklion, SE Crete on 3/4/2014.

April 11th, 2014 (Michael Jasny). On the island of Crete, biologists have begun studying the bodies of whales that perished during the recent mass stranding.

They’ll be looking for tell-tale signs of sonar pathology : bleeding around the brain, lesions in organ tissue, and damage to the acoustic fats, a mass of tissue along a whale’s jawline that helps conduct sound to the ears.  These injuries are analogous to those seen in severe cases of decompression sickness, or the bends.  In humans, they’re associated with pain, disorientation, nervous and cardiovascular system dysfunction, and death.

That part of the investigation will take some weeks to unfold, depending as it does on a careful, specialized analysis of the brain, ears, and organ tissue, but some details of the gross examinations that were conducted on the beaches are already out.

Most horribly, investigators discovered that one of the stranded whales was pregnant with a female calf.  The sight of this is just heartbreaking – a tragedy within a tragedy.

The loss of an unborn calf is also very bad news for conservation.  Beaked whale moms don’t have many babies, tending to wait longer between pregnancies than some other marine mammals, and most beaked whale populations that have been studied are very small to begin with.  In the wake of this disaster and the suite of other sonar-related strandings that preceded it, the region’s biologists are concerned about the health of beaked whale populations off Greece.

To demand that the U.S. Navy protect whales during training, please go here. You can also call NOAA (202-482-3436) – the agency that is supposed to regulate the Navy – and ask that they enforce our marine mammal laws.

Ed Sibylline – More Info (Aimilia Drougas, Natasa Komnenou) : During the last week, there is a lot of harm towards the Cuvier’s beaked whales in Southern Crete with already four dead animals. In Greece, Ziphius cavirostris’ population, behaviour, feeding areas, reproduction and lifespan  are not completely studied.  This is a parameter that we stress the authorities for their immediate protection and conservation for these animals, Dr Aimilia Drougas, ARION’s scientific coordinator, commended. The mother was still in gestation and did not make delivering her baby. This is a serious collateral loss and relevant authorities should implement immediate protection measures for the Cuvier’s beaked whales’ population.

From relevant literature, Cuvier’s Beaked Whale calves are usually, born at about 2.70 m in length (Heyning 2002 ; Mead 1984) and their physical maturity is reached at between 5.9 m and 6.13 m (Ross 2006). Also, their mating and calving season is reported to be all year round, as no seasonal pattern is evident. Dr. Aimilia Drougas said that the calving areas are not known for Greek waters as well as, the gestation period and calving interval for Cuvier’s Beaked Whales are unknown, but in other beaked whales species the interval is expected to be one calf every few years, leading to a slow reproductive capacity.

ARION will evaluate all the findings after receiving the results from the histopathological and other analysis of the tissue and internal organ samples, which have been gathered from the 3 necropsies. The analysis is accomplished at the Veterinary Medicine of AUTH laboratories.

The tri-lateral war drill exercises of Greece, Israel and NATO’s navy using sonars are expected to finish on the 10th of April, according to the Hellenic Navy’s formal announcement. Although, the covered area has been moved 100 km southern of Crete, after the alert given by the focal point of ACCOBAMS in Greeece, atypical strandings are still reported in this area. It is known that Ziphiidae ear drums are affected from the low frequency sonars by air embolism.

Given the seriousness of the situation and because have historically been other similar mass strandings of Cuvier’s beaked whales on coasts of western and southern Greece, the incident is being monitored by the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, the Hellenic Marine Research Centre, the Institute of Cetacean Research Pelagos and the Cetacean Rescue and Rehabilitation Research Center – ARION.

Local authorities and local residents and ARION’s volunteers of Southern Crete, have been alerted to stand by and immediately notify the port authorities and the above organizations, in case other marine mammals strand on the coast of the broader region.

Her fetus Cuvier's beaked whales at Kastri, Heraklion, SE Crete on 3/4/2014.

Her fetus Cuvier’s beaked whales at Kastri, Heraklion, SE Crete on 3/4/2014.

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