Let The Whales Die

Hervey Bay Whales 3938 courtesy of Michael Dawes on Flikr and available by CC Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/)

No matter what meaning I intend with the title, it has more than likely made you uncomfortable.  It makes me uncomfortable to write it. I do this as a sort of social and individual level experiment for both of us.

A stranded whale washes ashore.  What do you do?  One naturally tries to save it.  There is sort of unwritten code among us.  We should save animals…entire species from extinction and individuals from death.  We intervene both in part to help the animal and because it helps lower our guilt, makes us feel like we are actively participating in conservation, and selfishly makes us feel like better stewards.

But in Britain

Of the 54 beachings of deep sea whales between 2002 and 2006, every rescue attempt failed.  Dr Paul Jepson, from the Zoological Society of London, said by the time the mammals reach our shores and estuaries they are severely dehydrated and have muscle damage that leads to kidney failure. The RSPCA [Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals] said rescue teams felt under “emotional pressure” to save whales. But added: “It is unlikely we will be rescuing in future.” From now on, beached whales will only be saved if they can be taken to sea within an hour. Experts said that is “highly unlikely” in the UK.

This makes one contemplate previous reactions to posts here, Diving With Sharks, and Southern Fried Scientist, on Sea Shepard.  Regardless of your opinion on the organization, Sea Shepard is able to mobilize and energize a certain contingent.  How important is the belief in action over real results, often hard to assess, among Sea Shepard and other NGO’s?  Is action alone enough or should we be accountable for producing results from action?

Dr. M (1628 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Assistant Director of Science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, created to facilitate research to address fundamental questions in evolutionary science. He has conducted deep-sea research for 11 years and published over 40 papers in the area. He has participated in dozens of expeditions taking him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses mainly on marine systems and particularly the biology of body size, biodiversity, and energy flow. He focuses often on deep-sea systems as a natural test of the consequences of energy limitation on biological systems. He is the author and chief editor of Deep-Sea News, a popular deep-sea themed blog, rated the number one ocean blog on the web and winner of numerous awards. Craig’s popular writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web.





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9 comments on “Let The Whales Die
  1. If results were valued over just “doing something”, Sea Shepherd would have gone out of business thirty years ago. People still fin sharks, people still club seals, people still go whaling… despite thirty years of Sea Shepherd’s “direct action”.

  2. There need to be results, or at least a competent and rational explanation for a lack of any positive results in a reasonable time frame. Sea Shepherd and the deep sea whale rescue efforts, regardless of the value of the intentions, is simply repeating the same action repeatedly while expecting a new result.

    Glad to see an analytical evaluation of the success of rescues, and someone willing to express the result of that evaluation regardless of the probable backlash from some sectors. Not an easy position to take, but I believe the right one.

  3. The thing is people find it painful to stand around and watch an animal slowly die and it can take a beached whale days to die sometimes. So of course we want to try what we can to help them, it’s an emotional response. It’s not rational and rarely gets results in the sense of saving the lives of these whales (results in terms of awareness are a different matter).

  4. The press in uk, has published slightly out of context what the new triage is in uk. The part quoted above is only in relation to Sperm whales, and deep diving beaked whales. The results of pm’s have indeed shown that currently, the effects of stranding, is such that it would indeed be cruel to attempt a refloat after one hour.
    However other species of whale do not suffer the same effects as quickly and therefor will all be evaluated on an individual bases, to do what is best for the animal in each case……thankyou

  5. As someone who interned at a marine animal rescue / rehab facility, I can say that I completely understand the article. After weeks of care, thousands in donor funds, and too much emotional investment, many of our animals died. Cetaceans were notoriously difficult to treat, generally once they beach they’re very near death. The efforts, volunteer hours and donor funds in cases like mass whale beachings would be better spent on education and outreach.

  6. I think they should focus more on why the whales beach, especially in the en masse events. I wonder what would the Navy have to say about it…

  7. Whales are smart.
    Might they know that beaching isn’t exactly smart. And what its likely outcome is.

    Are we faced with self-propelled euthanasia? Who are we to deny their right to die in dignity?

    Fundamentalist cetecean suicide cults? Are we interfering with an important part of indigenous whale culture? (note: some whales even explode, are we facing a growing rise in whale suicide bombers?)

  8. I’m surprised to be the first person here to suggest that if we’ve made the decision not to try and save a stranded whale, and yet it pains us to watch the whale die slowly and painfully, then the obvious thing to do is to put it out of its misery (though one wonders what kind of firearm would do the trick if any).

  9. Great post! Too many people think that actions like these are “conservation.” It is interesting that when humans are the cause of an animal or population dying out (i.e. whaling), there is much less enthusiasm than if some “poor,” “defenseless” animal needs our help (i.e. beached whales). What kind of nerve needs to be hit to create such an outcry?

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