The bodies of 337 whales have washed up on the southern coast of Chile, in one of the largest recorded beachings in history. The cause of the whales’ deaths has not yet been determined, though human intervention has been ruled out.
Due to the remoteness of the area, amongst a series of fjords and islets in the Aysen region of Patagonia, scientists have so far been unable to examine most of the whales. However, aerial photographs show 305 bodies and 32 skeletons.
“It was an apocalyptic image for us. I’d never seen anything like it,” Vreni Haussermann, scientific director of the Huinay Foundation and one of the biologists who lead the discovery, told AFP.
Haussermann and her team have been investigating the beaching since April, after they came across an initial 37 whales by chance on an exploratory expedition. Having raised their own funding, the team began observation flights in June, which revealed a far greater number of bodies.
“There’s still so many areas we haven’t been able to get to, so it’s very likely that there are more dead whales,” said Haussermann,
It is believed, owing to the location and uniform size and shape of the bodies, that all the whales belong to the Sei species, part of the rorqual whale family. Sei whales, which are blue in colour and grow to an average length of 16m, are among the fastest swimming whales and can reach speeds of 50 kilometres per hour.
“[Rorqual whales] don’t normally travel in large groups,” Carolina Simon Gutstein, a palaeontologist at the University of Chile who has collaborated with Haussermann in the investigation, told AP yesterday.
The bodies were found near the Gulf of Penas, 1,650km south of Santiago. “Beachings are very common” in this area, said Simon Gutstein. However, “the whales probably died at sea – we don’t know where exactly – but they didn’t die from getting stranded,” she added.
Haussermann and Simon Gutstein’s team have been analysing the photographs and the reachable remains since June, but have declined to release their full findings until publishing them in a scientific journal later in the year. They hope to return to the scene in summer, when it will be easier to study the bodies.
Among the causes of death being considered is Red Tide, a phenomenon in which certain species of toxic algae begin to bloom and accumulate rapidly, resulting in a red or brown coloration of the surface water. The phenomenon is often responsible for manatee deaths.
The team have expressed hope that the episode will allow them to learn more about these kinds of whales, which normally live quite far from the coast, and potentially spur the creation of a nature sanctuary around the Gulf of Penas.