This last weekend an article from the Guardian was brought to our attention announcing an investigation report released about a Mass Stranding Event (MSE) that occurred on July of 2011. Somehow we missed this at the time of publication in June 2015. Perhaps for this reason it warrants further review.
While mass strandings of various species of whales and dolphins occur occasionally throughout the world, it is usually only when there is a potential correlation with western nation military exercises where the financial resources are available to do a comprehensive analysis of the event. It is not too cynical to point out that navies with enough resources to do live target practice with 1000lb. bombs also have the resources to investigate when something goes wrong. It is fortunate when governments respond to the public concern and fund the investigations.
This investigation took four years to complete. It wasn’t bogged down by foot-dragging; rather it was a really detailed evaluation done by the UK Cetacean Stranding Investigation Programme (CSIP) and Scotland’s Rural College. This “MSE” gave a lot of students a unique opportunity to do comprehensive necropsies and pathologies on a large collection of otherwise healthy pilot whales – which was one way of making something useful out of a horrible tragedy.
Even outside of the conclusions drawn, the report is informative about the many possible causes of marine mammal mortality. Prior to stranding the animals had been healthy. Even the one male that had a septic shoulder joint was otherwise in good health. All had food in their bellies, no significant bacterial pathogens, no evidence of lesions caused by fishing bycatch or ship strikes, no evidence of demoic acid poisoning. Chemical loading from anthropogenic PCBs and toxic metals (Mercury, Lead, Arsenic, etc.) was present but sub-pathology.
The summary of potential causes in the report clearly points to underwater detonations being the probable cause of the strandings. The event occurred off the coast of Scotland’s Cape Wrath, Europe’s largest live bombing range. The bombs were not deliberately dropped in the water; rather they were strays that landed in the water which were later located and exploded by the Royal Navy Northern Diving Group. The sizes of these bombs ranged from 250lbs. to 1000lbs. Big Bombs.
It is important to understand that underwater explosions damage more than just marine mammals. Fish, sharks, and invertebrates die and marine habitats are destroyed as well. We just see the evidence when marine mammals wash ashore. So while the recommendations include being more assiduous in locating marine mammals before unexploded ordnance is blown up, in this case perhaps not using a part of the training range where bombs might get lost in the water would have been helpful.
Another suggestion that was circulating after the report was to use “mock bombs” packed with some inert powder and just enough explosives to make it look like a big bomb. This would serve the target practice aspect of the exercise, although it might not be half as fun for the bombers – who probably like to “feel the boom” and see the damage afterwards.
In this case the damage afterwards was completely unacceptable.