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Beached whales in France's north ‘may have washed up voluntarily’

AFP / Denis Charlet |Firefighters and animal rescuers inspect the carcasses of long-finned pilot whales stranded on a beach in the northern French city of Calais on November 2, 2015

A school of 10 pilot whales that washed up on a beach in Calais in northern France Monday may have beached themselves voluntarily after the death of the group’s dominant male, an expert has said.


A local woman discovered the stranded mammals as she took a stroll on the beach early Monday morning and raised the alarm. Six of the black pilot whales were already dead, including a 4.5-metre male and a large female.

Firefighters and conservation groups launched a frantic effort to return the survivors to the water, but another of the whales died during the rescue attempt. The remaining three whales – a female and two calves – were successfully returned to sea when the tide came in.

It is believed all 10 whales belonged to the same family and had been migrating north.

"The group was in the middle of a deep-sea migration towards the Faroe Islands to reproduce and feed," said Jacky Karpouzopoulos, of the Centre for Marine Mammal Research at La Rochelle.

"It's possible that this was a voluntary family beaching, whereby the dominant male died at sea and the rest followed his body," she said.

An autopsy will be carried out to determine the cause of death.

“The male probably died out at sea, we'll know once the autopsy's done,” said Karpouzopoulos.

Human activity

France’s Observatory for the Conservation of Marine Mammals and Birds, which is investigating the incident, said whale beachings can happen for numerous reasons.

“They can be accidents related to the topography and the tide, or be caused by illness,” it said in a statement.

However, human activity could also be to blame, said the observatory. Noise created by shipping and other manmade sources can cause a “state of stress” among whales and prompt them to try to “flee towards the coast”, it said.

Pilot whales are a fairly common site in the waters around Calais, but the beaching of so many of the animals at the same time is rare.

Firefighters hosed down the whales to avoid them becoming dehydrated as heavy machinery arrived to move the creatures back into the water.

"It's not an easy task, you can see from the vehicles we're using," said David De Smedt, environmental services director for Calais. “They weigh quite a bit, the last two we took down weighed around 2 tonnes each.”

It is not known if the whales that made it back to the water will be able to continue their migration north without the rest of the group by their side.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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