Now trying to escape to safety themselves
Pilot whales search for way out of Loch Carnan, Scotland. Photo by Steve Duffield.
As winds whipped up to 70 miles an hour in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, rescuers were hopeful that up to 100 pilot whales had been able to find their way out of the dangerously shallow Loch Carnan and back to the ocean.
But the big question remained: Why had the whales gone into the loch in the first place? It now seems there were two reasons.
First, one of the whales, a mother who had entered the loch first and was nursing a calf, was sick and dying. Very likely, her large extended family had all followed her in to be with her, to help in whatever way possible, and, if nothing could be done, to say goodbye.
“They are social animals,” said Alisdair Jack, Scottish coordinator of the British Divers Marine Life Rescue. “And this sick or injured whale may have been the cause of why they came into the loch.”
Rescuers believe the group followed her to shallow water so she would not be alone, and then became disorientated themselves.
But why would they have become disoriented?
That leads to the second possible reason for what happened: that the whales lost their way after becoming confused by a high voltage power cable under the sea.
Rescuers are looking into the theory that the whales’ navigation may have been affected by the magnetic field emitted by the cable that runs from Loch Carnan, where the whales were found, to the mainland.
This theory is supported by the fact that only last October another pod of whales became stranded in Loch Carnan.
Marine conservationists bring ashore the dead pilot whale from Loch Carnan, Scotland. Photo by Jeff Mitchell
Meanwhile, tests on the body of the mother whale suggested that she had died from an infection, not from being stranded. Infection could also affect her navigation. Rescuers also noted that she was just coming to an end of a lactation, and said they hoped her young calf had been fully weaned so that he could survive on his own.
On Sunday, the main pod found their way out of the shallow, dangerous waters of Loch Carnan and have now headed out to sea. Alisdair Jack said that the bad weather would almost certainly split the pod into two or three groups, so it would be difficult to keep track of them all now. In any case, the weather was so bad that air and sea vessels all had to be recalled.
Pilot whales live mostly in deep water, but come inshore to feed on squid, which is their main food. They grow up to 30 feet long and weight between three and four tons.