I once, as a kid, watched a pod of pilot whales from the deck of a whale-watching boat off the coast of Maine. They are playful, graceful creatures – despite the bulbous protrusion to which they owe the undignified nickname “pothead,” as well as their latin title Globicephala maleana (I’m guessing that means something like “globe head,” but my Latin is rusty). They travel in groups, or pods, within which they develop smaller family units that are stable over time. They are highly intelligent; use echolocation, like dolphins; and are thought to have a fairly complex language system. The whales I watched in the North Atlantic sometime in the mid-eighties spent the afternoon “skyhopping” — popping vertically in the waves, melon heads shining, lifting their noses toward the bright summer sun.
Scientists are not sure why groups of pilot whales so often strand themselves on beaches. It may have something to do with social devotion — like loyal soldiers, the whales will follow their leaders even to certain death. Whales that swim ashore may have become confused by disturbances in magnetic fields. They may be ill or have navigational disabilities. They may be having an existential crisis. No one really knows. But whatever the cause, it’s happened again. The story from Planet Ark:
SYDNEY – More than 100 whales and dolphins died in two separate beachings in 24 hours on remote Australian islands, leaving rescuers on Monday struggling to steer survivors out to sea and prevent more strandings.
Pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins are “companion species,” apparently, and the dolphins seem to have followed the pilot whales ashore. Very strange. Very sad.