In two small
stretches in the sand, the 81 short-finned pilot whales that died on January 12
and 13 off Manapad coast in the Gulf of Mannar in southern Tamil Nadu’s
Tuticorin district were given a mass burial. Small mounds of sand mark the
graves. Litter flies over them. A church overlooks the graves. Some distance
away, a lighthouse stands. The wind carries the smell of putrefying fish guts
and bleach. As officials moved on after burying the whales, the fishermen
poured bleach to quell the stench. Still, the smell of death lingers.
The world’s oceans host two species of pilot whales: long-finned Globicephala melas, and short-finned Globicephala macrorhynchus Gray. They are among the largest members of the family Delphinidae. While the long-finned pilot whales roam in temperate waters, their short-finned cousins live in tropical and subtropical waters, and are usually found in the deeps of the Indian, Atlantic, and Pacific oceans. They are believed to prefer shores that have some slope. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), short-finned whales are listed as “data-deficient” and much remains to be known about the species.
Indian waters are rich in cetacean diversity. The word comes from Greek ketos—whale, shark, and sea monster—Latinised as cetus, referring to large sea animal. “Cetacean” refers to the order of mammals that has whales, dolphins and porpoises. The paper—“Cetaceans and cetacean research in India”—published by R.P. Kumarran states that “India has one of the richest diversities of cetaceans within the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) Indian Ocean Sanctuary (IOS). Twenty-six species of cetaceans (including 25 marine species and the Ganges river dolphin, Platanista gangetica) have been recorded.”
Carnivorous marine mammals, the pilot whales belong to the suborder of toothed whales. They are named for the pilot that leads them and their social bonds are strong. They stay together in pods, and if something happens to one of the group, the others may follow it, stranding themselves. Toothed whales such as pilot whales depend on echolocation to navigate and hunt. A whale sends out a high-pitched sound (such as clicks), which bounces off objects and return to the whale, which helps it figure out the shape of object, direction, and location. Research shows underwater military activity using SONAR (Sound Navigation and Ranging) is often followed by mass strandings and deaths.
The loudest sounds put out by SONAR cause internal bleeding in the ear and brains. The sounds may also scramble their navigational skills which may lead to stranding and death. In addition, undersea earthquakes and seismic activity generate magnetic waves, which could seriously impair the whales’ navigation, and may result in their entering shallow waters and getting stranded. According to the American Cetacean Society, pilot whales are not considered endangered. There are “almost a million long-finned pilot whales and at least 200,000 short-finned pilot whales” in the world’s oceans.
* * *
n the Manapad shore, plastic bags, pieces of cloth and nets, mats of plant matter, dried-up cartilage, tangles of nobody-knows-what, litter the sands. Away from the mounds, a bunch of fishermen laze on the sand under a pooarsan tree on a recent morning. Some sit picking their teeth with whatever they find in the sand; some are sprawled, legs and arms akimbo, hands under heads, heads on the sand, making circular divots, cloth on the eyes, breaths that sound like revving motorcycles. They nurse a bonfire of twigs. The kindling includes a piece of baby underwear too. These grizzled men seem to have no care in the world. They are, after all, sea creatures as much as those in the sea and those that were buried so recently beneath the sands.
“The fire is chumma, for fun, passing time,” says Jergius, spelling it—J-E-R-G-I-U-S. He is 50. He laughs out loud, a deep basso laugh, baring teeth that look like a rusted handsaw, featuring all shades of yellow with seasonings of red here and there. He recollects the moment he saw the whales roiling and rolling in the water on January 12.
“They were all spaced out,” he says, scratching his salt-tinged hair and one-week beard. That morning, around two, he and his people heard deep cries and moans—grrrr, grrr, grr—insistent, and painful. When they went out to see, they found more than 100 whales lined up straight along the coast, as Raju, a fisherman, puts it, like “boats” within a few feet of each other, for at least two kilometres.
The fishermen started pushing them into the water, but the surf brought them back. As night turned into day people tied ropes and dragged the whales into the sea, to no avail. Some people sat on the dead mammals; kids mounted them.
The strandings and death started on the afternoon of January 11, at Ananthalai and Kallamozhi. By evening, people and television crews started pouring in, broadcasting images of struggling, gasping whales, which prompted university, forest, wildlife, veterinary, revenue and police officials to rush to the coast. The count varies, depending on whom you ask. There were approximately 80 whales seen on the coast, according to various accounts, of which 46 died and the 35 were pushed back into the sea. By the morning of January 12, the whales had been carried by the waves to Manapad, about two kilometres away.
There were calves, at least two. The adults weighed 1,000kg to 1,500 kg; length 6 metres; and girth 3 metres. Although they eat small fish, the main diet is squid, which is abundant in the Gulf of Mannar. The Gulf is a unique ecosystem, with stupendous fecundity and diversity. One fisherman says he found squid in the mouth of one dead whale.
Rajan, a fisherman with lean, bony frame and long fingers, extends his arms wide, while his mate nods and extends his arms too. He says some whales were so big that “only a circle of three people can embrace the big ones”.
The men saw the deep-sea animals, living in the deep blue below, gasping for breath. They observed protruding bellies, indicating some were pregnant. There were scratches and cuts, due to all the rolling in the sand and crashing into piles of rocks under the water. Then on January 13, some washed up again and died, totalling 81 in the three days. After the officials went away following the burial, two whales burst like crackers and calves sprouted up from their bellies, Jergius says.
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he sea is sanctuary and home for whales as well as men. They usually go 10 kilometres or so out into the sea. “Unless we go to the sea, we would go mad,” says Lerins, 47, guffawing. Short, with a sack of a stomach, he seems to love just being out there. His two front teeth, he says, were knocked out by a friend in a drunken caper.
The men sometimes see whales in the sea when they are fishing. “When we see them, we recite a mantra and do japa,” says Mannikkam, 66, “and they go away without causing harm or coming near the boat.” The old salt says the mantra has saved him many times.
Jergius remembers an earlier mass stranding in the same place, on January 14, 1973. One hundred and forty seven whales washed up here and died. He was seven then, and he heard the same continuous bursts of grrrr, grrr, grr… around two o’clock in the morning.
“It was like kids wailing, loud, louder, and the loudest,” he says. “They were bigger than now, each maybe weighing one to one-and-half-tonnes.” They were, he says, struggling, splashing, rolling, and gasping in the waves and on the sand. They had big teeth.
This is not the first recorded stranding, however. According to the paper—“Mass stranding of pilot whale Globicephala macrorhynchus Gray, 1846 in North Andaman coast”—published in January 2013 in Current Science by C. Raghunathan and colleagues, the first recorded mass stranding of short-finned pilot whales in India was in 1852. Several dozen beached in salt lakes near Kolkata (Serampore). The next was 1973. After almost 40 years, on October 21, 2012, 40 whales washed up on Elizabeth Bay, on the west coast of North Andaman in the Bay of Bengal. All 40 died despite the efforts of local fishermen to save them. Between 1852 and 2012, the paper summarises, 214 whales stranded and died (Kolkata, 27; Gulf of Mannar, 147; Elizabeth Bay, 40) on Indian coasts. The biggest known whale stranding in the world is off the coast of Patagonia in Chile in 2015. Three-hundred-and-thirty-seven sei whales washed up and died.
The phenomenon of stranding and why whales enter shallow waters at all remains a mystery. The hypotheses for Elizabeth Bay, the paper notes, range from undersea earthquake to following fast-moving dolphin and prey, and getting trapped in flows and adverse seabed topography, to tidal currents to sonic waves from undersea military activity. The samples were also tested for morbillivirus, but the autopsy didn’t reveal any clue, the paper states. Morbillivirus has emerged as a lethal pathogen for cetaceans and pinnipeds everywhere. A paper published in Emerging Infectious Diseases—“Morbillivirus and Pilot Whale Deaths, Mediterranean Sea”—analysed the “outbreak of a lethal morbillivirus infection of long-finned pilot whales (that) occurred in the Mediterranean Sea from the end of October 2006 through April 2007.” The study concludes that the pathogen induced “high mortality rates among long-finned pilot whales in the Mediterranean Sea.”
The current stranding and death of whales has confounded experts.
Researchers at the Fisheries College and Research Institute, Thoothukkudi, offer some tentative reasons: That the whales were on a suicide mission; that they chased prey, got caught in high tides and beached. Manapad is a supratidal zone, the area above the high tide mark. In inter-tidal zones, water comes in and recedes, whereas in supra-tidal zones, water goes over the high tide mark and splashes the area above it. Once water comes in, bearing aloft whales, they are left high and dry when it recedes, and so they are trapped there.
Undersea naval exercises and oil and gas drilling could mess up the navigation skills of the whales. Since there are no reports of any in the area, a possible causative factor could be an undersea earthquake. An earthquake of magnitude 6.4 struck the Philippines’ Sarangani and Indonesia’s Talaud islands on January 11 around 19:00 to 21:00 hours Coordinated Universal Time. That means, around midnight to 2 a.m. in India, January 12. The only problem with that theory is that the stranding started well before the quake in Alanthalai and Kallimozhi, on the afternoon of January 11. But just as terrestrial mammals can detect signals from an impending earthquake, would the whales have anticipated a quake, got agitated and panicked and entered the shallow waters, and got stranded? That’s a distinct possibility.
Changes in the earth’s geomagnetic fields could also contribute to the whales’ disorientation. Red tides and dead zones could be factors. These are toxic algal blooms caused by fertilizer runoffs and sewage, thereby increasing the toxin-producing microorganisms. Although not all algal blooms are toxic, some algae can cause the death of fish, mammals, and birds.
Perhaps tissue samples will provide better answers. Various groups have collected samples which are in the process of analysis, but not in India. There is a shortage of expertise in the field of marine mammals. “We don’t have any wildlife veterinarian in India trained for marine mammal studies,” says1 Dipani Nitin Sutaria, an independent ecologist and adjunct senior research fellow at the College of Marine and Environmental Sciences in James Cook University, Australia.
All in all, the cause or causes of stranding and death remain a mystery, as much as the whales themselves.
Meanwhile, it’s hot and humid out on the sands. The odour has become nastier and you try not puke out your innards. In a few hours time, these men will set off on their boats. Raju calls up his friend, who is seven kilometres in the sea, fishing, and enquires about the catch. The friend says he is yet to draw in the net. The men have GPS set, wrapped in a plastic cover and placed in plastic can.
Lerins waves his hand towards where the whales lie buried and says, “Come amavasya, the tide will wash off the sand, and the remains will bob up. The smell will be unbearable.”