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North Sea Sperm Whales Died Hunting For Squid, Researchers Confirm

Feb 09, 2016 11:39 AM EST
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Researchers have identified the cause of death for the 30 some sperm whales found stranded on beaches in the North Sea. It turns out that they had wandered into shallow waters while hunting squid.

A total of six whales died after washing up on the east coast of England in Skegness and Hunstanton and a number of others were found beached in France, Germany and the Netherlands, BBC reports.

However, Dr. Peter Evans, director of the Sea Watch Foundation, has confirmed human activity, such as a boat strike, fishing line entanglement or wind turbines, was not related to the whale strandings or their ability to properly navigate. 

"We've now had 30 animals stranded around the southern part of the North Sea - making it the biggest we've ever had," Dr. Evans said. "The animals which were first stranded in Holland had quite a lot of a particular species of squid in their stomachs - which they can catch, up in the Norwegian Deep."

The problem, however, is that the whales likely followed shoals of squid too far south, into Dogger Bank. The North Sea is far more shallow than the large creatures are used to, which means they are not able to properly make use of their sonar -- the animals' method of navigation and hunting using reflected waves to locate distant objects and sense their shape and movement. 

"They normally live out in very deep waters, about 3,000 metres deep - south of Dogger Bank it's mainly less than 50 metres - and can be less than 20," Dr. Evans said, adding that once the whales had swum south of Dogger Bank there was little chance of them surviving.

However, whales often run the risk of stranding themselves when hunting close to shore. For instance, killer whales capture seals by surging onto beaches. While the resulting wave washes seals into the water, whales must their rapidly jerk their bodies back into the rescuing surf to avoid stranding themselves. 

"I can understand why people look for some human factor that may be causing these strandings," Dr, Evans concluded. "But there is certainly no evidence." 

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