Whales must be our cetacean mammal brothers or at least cousins (a few times removed). Nothing might make you feel the same way more than seeing one beach itself. That was exactly what happened last month when a pygmy sperm whale came ashore only yards from where we were swimming at our local beach.
They say whales returned to the water in their evolutionary process eons ago, while many mammals were passing them going the opposite direction. Numerous whale species, like our friends the dolphins, are listed in ‘Most Intelligent Animal’ lists. Today we co-exist with the biggest animal ever to roam the planet. The colossal blue whale reaches lengths of 200 feet, weightlessly growing by sieving for microscopic organisms called krill.

Whether you believe in evolution or creation, whales inspire awe. They have inexplicably beached themselves throughout the course of history leading scientists and dreamers alike to theorize that they were trying to return to the land once more. Today whale beachings are more usually explained by sickness or injury and more ominously the military. According to a May 2012 article on military.com the United States Navy has increased its underwater sonar testing threefold. The military readily admits its tests effect whale species. Three months after that article was published ‘our’ pygmy sperm whale swam ashore on Surfer’s Beach, Eleuthera. A week later another was found, already dead, on the opposite side of the island a few miles up the shoreline. That same week 22 pilot whales came ashore in Ft. Pierce, Florida and 16 pilot whales died after beaching in Scotland – where our own Gulf Stream flows. Strange coincidence or direct result of the increased military tests?
There were no obvious injuries to these whales. In Ft. Pierce they said the whales’ navigational organs had been damaged and theorized about a parasite affecting their brain.

Ocean communicators

Whales rely on their own sonar – and a still little-understood ability to read the earth’s magnetic fields – to travel thousands of miles to ancient breeding and feeding grounds. Humpback whales, a species sometimes seen traveling through Bahamian waters, perform songs that biologists think travel hundreds, even thousands of miles, and help whale pods remain in touch. It’s like whale cell phones, with free roaming.

Having decimated most whale species to the point of extinction in the last century we are now busy trying to make amends. There’s no justification that the military can give for their actions harming whales. They say underwater sonar and weapons testing must be done for the national defense. But the lands and oceans won’t be worth defending if they chase (read kill) species like whales away. Because many whales – like pilot and pygmy sperm whales – spend time at depths of thousands of feet scientists admit they don’t really know everything that’s happening.

About 50 years ago the United States Navy leased land in Andros on the Tongue of the Ocean because it’s immense, usually calm depths were perfect for testing their weaponry. The same reasons it’s popular with whales.  You don’t have to be Kofi Annan to see the conflict there.

Whale watchers unite

As we approach our winter months some lucky few will sight migrating whales, especially the humpbacks. In seven years in Eleuthera I’ve been lucky enough to spot two pods of what we educatedly-guessed were humpbacks. These top cetacean singer/songwriters swim from winter feeding grounds as far away as the Arctic Circle and can be spotted in our waters usually from January through April. They bring their young to wean in the shallow, safe waters of places like the Silver and Navidad banks of the Dominican Republic. Our quiet sounds and banks are undoubtedly popular with them too. One humpback had the luck (or was it intuition) to swim onto the Great Bahama Bank near Spanish Wells a few years ago dragging a tangle of fishing net. Jake and Kirk Aulin Jr. of Gregory Town, among others, spent hours successfully untangling this whale.

But how many whales succumb silently to such entanglements? How many whales fall to the ocean bottom unseen by us after being injured by military testing?

‘Our’ pygmy sperm whale – at little more than six feet, still only a youngster – had a story to tell if only it could. I thought it chose the spot to beach so it didn’t die in vain, that someone would make a plea for it and its kind. And while I readily admit to personification, the expression on its face could be summed up in one word – sadness.

Tom Glucksmann, originally from New Providence, has been running eco-adventure tours here in Eleuthera for the last seven years with his company Bahamas Out Island Adventures.

Email him at tom@bahamasadventures.com