Beaked whale strandings in Sicily coincident with NATO exercises

Michela Podestà from the Museum of Natural History of Milan sent out a notice about two beaked whales (Ziphius cavirostris) that were found stranded in Sicily close to Syracuse February 8, 2011.

The local Coast Guard attempted to tow and release them out at sea, but at least one had found its way back to shallow water. Palliative measures and observations made by Antonino Barlotta with Fondo Siciliano per la Natura (Sicily Wildlife Foundation) who wrote a detailed report on his time with one whale before attempting to relocate and release it.

The stranding was coincident to NATO Anti-Submarine exercises in the area that involved six submarines, at least eight support ships (frigates and destroyers) and an array of gliders – Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs).

Submarine tactical communication involves acoustical modems (sonar). It is not unlikely that the AUVs would also have included acoustical modems. The AUVs were performing reconnaissance, so they did include sonar systems.

While I was not involved and thus know little about the conditions of the strandings, I am generally opposed to relocating and “releasing” stranded animals. These animals are intelligent and probably know what they are doing. Dr. Barlotta’s report indicated that breathing function was not compromised and there was no evidence of bacterial infection.

If these animals were deafened by sonar, “releasing” them into the ocean is releasing them to predators from which they can not escape nor defend against. Just because they were “no longer sited after being set free” only means that they were not sited by humans. It also means that we will never know for sure if they were permanently deafened by acoustic trauma, or if they may have had a chance to recover.