In recent weeks, a couple of dozen sperm whales have ended up on beaches in the UK, Norway, France and Germany, when normally these huge animals spend their time in the deep ocean, not in the relatively shallow North Sea. Marine scientists are puzzled as to why this has occurred. Occasionally this happens, but very rarely on this scale, and this is possibly the biggest instance for a hundred years. As odd as it may seem, there might be a connection between the unusual beaching of whales in several countries and military submarine activity.
My speculation on what has happened is based upon a comment made by one scientist on a news programme that these whales might have ‘got lost’, or for some reason went the wrong way. These whales use echolocation for hunting and for communication, with signals sent at very low frequencies – for different purposes at 0.5, 5 and 15 kHz. I would guess that the most likely cause of the disorientation of the whales is due to an increase in military submarine activity!
Military submarines often use similar frequency communication (usually below 20 or 30kHz). These signals could have led to the directional mistakes made by the beached whales – they tend to travel in groups, so disorientating a few would lead to more getting lost. Assuming that it would take the whales a while to travel to the wrong location, this would suggest that over the past several months there has been a big increase in submarine activity, something that would turn a one-off blunder by a whale with squid indigestion into a major event affecting many.
No country will advertise its military surveillance operations, especially those that need not be acknowledged when below the waves. One recent NATO report argues that there has been an increase in Russian submarine activity, while questions about the value of the UK’s Trident programme, based in Scotland, could also have prompted the Royal Navy to increase theirs. So, if you really want to save the whale, you have to be an anti-militarist too!
Tony Norfield, 5 February 2016