Wed. Sep 28th, 2022

Jose Maria Rodriguez

Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (EFE).- On September 24, 2002, Vidal Martín left home “with what he was wearing” to attend to a stranded cetacean, not knowing that it would take four days to return: the Fuerteventura coast and the dead in Lanzarote. There were beaked whales, while five NATO naval vessels went about their business in the “Neotapon” maneuver just a few miles away.

This Saturday completes two decades of an event that overwhelmed the Canarian society, which was witnessing helplessly how the 14 cetaceans that appeared on Tuesday stranded in various places on the islands closest to the African continent, exceeded the response capacity of such care services. episodes

They were all beaked whales (or beaked whales), an animal until then little studied, because it is so elusive that it spends less than 10% of its life on the surface, only a few minutes between submersion and immersion, but it is stable in the Canary Islands. Population, where there is deep water where you feel comfortable.

Although six individuals were brought back to sea alive, before the end of the week the body count rose to eleven: nine Cuvier’s beaked whales, one Blainville’s beaked whale, and one Gervais’s beaked whale.

Earlier, between 1996 and 2000, around thirty beaked whales died in three “atypical” mass strandings in Greece, the Bahamas and Madeira (Portugal), which always coincided with naval maneuvers, such as in the Canary Islands, so ecologists and scientists must have long been . There was some relationship.

The effect of gold

There was even a suspect, anti-submarine sonar, which was even indicated by a study on what happened in Greece in 1996, whose conclusions NATO disliked because it left many questions in the air; Formulated the correct hypothesis, but with weak evidence. So it was not until the strandings of Fuerteventura and Lanzarote in 2002 that the foundations were laid so that it would not happen again, thanks to a resolution of the European Parliament, which only Spain applied, and to the understanding of the Spanish Navy.

“They called me from the government of the Canary Islands to tell me that there are several dead whales south of Fuerteventura, with the question: Can you tell us if the military is killing them? Literally”. its director Institute of Animal Health (IUSA) Antonio Fernández, professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, remembers Efe that morning.

At that time, Fernández was not that specialized in cetaceans and IUSA became only a small faculty. Today, Fernández is the world authority on the subject and the Atlantic Marine Mammal Reference Center of IUSA, the International Organization for Animal Health.

Everything changed in 2003 with the publication in “Nature” of this article by Antonio Fernandez’s team and Paul Jepson’s group from the London Institute of Zoology about what had happened a year earlier in the Canary Islands: “Gas bubbles hit in immobile cetaceans. Was gold responsible for a series of whale deaths after a military exercise in the Atlantic?

In modern warfare, submarines represent a silent threat, a nightmare that can set up enemy nuclear missile launch pads off your coast. Scenes that have been described many times in movies and literature in works such as Tom Clancy’s novel “The Hunt for Red October”. That’s why the Navy devotes huge sums of money to developing sonar that detects them further, lower, earlier and in greater detail, ensuring that there is no invisible submarine no matter how well it hides.

Staff from the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria analyzed one of the beaked whales found dead that day off the coast of Fuerteventura on September 24, 2002. EFE/Juan Medina

decompression sickness

That article and other subsequent work showed that the medium-frequency, high-intensity sonar that NATO used in the Canary Islands disrupted the diving patterns of beaked whales, so that perhaps nature’s best divers died of decompression sickness. .

IUSA’s work went a step further on suspicions raised in Greece, with a dozen necropsies showing how golden beaked whales had been killed, but one more piece was missing, an answer to those who demanded: Why did they just die? Not beaked whales and pilot whales, dolphins or other types of whales?

The key, Fernández explains, lies in the characteristics of medium-frequency sonar, which overlaps with the frequencies emitted by orca biosonars and where the signal is also received by the beaked whale’s natural adaptation mechanism. What does a beaked whale feel when it receives a wave from an anti-submarine sonar?: It thinks it is about to be devoured by an orca, its great predator.

“Beaked whales panic and break their diving patterns,” says the IUSA director, “patterns that are designed not only to hunt large squid at depths of more than a thousand meters, but also to stay safe from killer whales, far below.” And, in their mad flight, beaked whales die from the formation of nitrogen bubbles in their tissues. They suffer from decompression syndrome.

Moratorium, yes, but only in the Canary Islands

Only Spain, and only the Canary Islands, has enforced an anti-gold moratorium in Europe in areas inhabited by cetaceans. Antonio Fernandez thinks that public pressure and the will of the Spanish Navy had a lot to do with it. Vidal Martin, co-author of “Nature” and its historical president, agrees. Society for the Study of Cetaceans in the Canary Islands.

“We are very grateful to them for that,” insists Martin, who recalls that from 1985 to 2002 there were eight other unusual mass strandings linked to naval maneuvers in the Canary Islands, so until the moratorium, the beaked whale population was the islands, themselves. Not very abundant in, they were severely punished.

Episodes such as those in Lanzarote and Fuerteventura on September 24, 2002 continued to occur in other parts of the world, particularly in the Mediterranean. Antonio Fernández and Vidal Martín believe that if the Canary Islands example is not caught, it is for political and geostrategic reasons, but not because of scientific doubts: since the anti-gold moratorium was signed in 2004, no more strandings of cetaceans and cetaceans have occurred in the Spanish archipelago. Its mortality rate has decreased by 25%. EFE

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