Jose Maria Rodriguez

Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (EFE).- On September 24, 2002, Vidal Martín left home “with what he was carrying” to take care of a stranded cetacean, not knowing that it would take four days to return: the coast of Fuerteventura and Lanzarote was dotted with dying beaked whales, while ships from five NATO navies continued their activities a few kilometers away, in “Neotapon” maneuvers.

This Saturday marks two decades of an event that shook Canarian society, which watched helplessly as 14 cetaceans appeared on Tuesday stranded in different places on the islands closest to the African continent, exceeding the response capacity of care services. to these types of episodes.

They were all beaked whales (or beaked whales), an animal very little studied until then, because so elusive that it spends less than 10% of its life on the surface, barely a few minutes between immersion and immersion, but it has stable populations in the Canary Islands, where deep waters abound in which you feel comfortable.

Although six individuals were returned to the sea alive, before the end of the week the number of dead bodies had risen to eleven: nine Cuvier’s beaked whales, one Blainville’s beaked whale and one Gervais’ beaked whale.

About 30 beaked whales had previously died during three “atypical” mass strandings in Greece, the Bahamas and Madeira (Portugal) between 1996 and 2000, always coinciding with naval maneuvers, such as in the Canary Islands, so that the environmentalists and scientists had a long time there was a relationship.

The impact of sonar

There was even a suspect, the anti-submarine sonar, which had even been singled out by a study of what happened in 1996 in Greece, the conclusions of which NATO disdained because it left many questions in the air ; made the right hypothesis, but with weak evidence. It will therefore be necessary to wait for the grounding of Fuerteventura and Lanzarote in 2002 for the bases to be laid so that this does not happen again, thanks to a resolution of the European Parliament, which only Spain applies, and to the agreement of the navy Spanish.

“They called me from the government of the Canary Islands to tell me that there were several dead whales in the south of Fuerteventura, with this question: Can you tell us if the military are killing them? Literal”. The director of Institute of Animal Health (IUSA) from the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Professor of Veterinary Medicine Antonio Fernández, remembers for Efe that morning.

At that time, Fernández was not so specialized in cetaceans and the IUSA had just become a small faculty. Currently, Fernández is a world authority on the subject and the IUSA, the reference center for Atlantic marine mammals of the International Organization for Animal Health.

Everything was changed by the publication in 2003 in “Nature” of this article by the team of Antonio Fernández and the group of Paul Jepson of the London Institute of Zoology on what had happened a year earlier in the Canary Islands: “Gas bubble injuries in stranded cetaceans. Was sonar responsible for a series of whale deaths after a military exercise in the Atlantic?

In modern warfare, submarines pose a silent threat, a nightmare that can place an enemy nuclear missile launch pad off your coast. This is the scenario that cinema and literature have described so many times in works like the novel “The Hunt for Red October” by Tom Clancy. That’s why navies spend huge amounts of money developing sonars that detect them farther, lower, forward and in more detail, ensuring there are no unseen submarines, no matter how well he hides.

Staff from the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria analyzed one of the beaked whales that appeared dead that day on the coast of Fuerteventura on September 24, 2002. EFE/Juan Medina

decompression sickness

This paper and subsequent work showed that the mid-frequency, high-intensity sonar that NATO had used in the Canary Islands broke the diving patterns of beaked whales, so what is probably the nature’s best diver died of decompression sickness. .

The IUSA work went deeper into the suspicions that had been raised in Greece, demonstrated with a dozen autopsies how sonar was killing beaked whales, but there was still one piece missing, the answer to those who said : why did only beaked whales die and not also pilot whales, dolphins or other types of whales?

The key, Fernández details, lies in the characteristics of mid-frequency sonar, which overlaps with the transmit frequency of orca biosonar and in which signals are also received by the beaked whales’ natural orientation system. What does a beaked whale feel when it receives waves from anti-submarine sonar? : She thinks she is about to be devoured by an orca, her great predator.

“Beaked whales panic and break their diving patterns,” says the director of the IUSA, patterns that are not only designed to hunt big squid at depths of more than a thousand meters, but also to stay shelter of the killer whales, far below. And, in their mad flight, beaked whales die from the formation of nitrogen bubbles in their tissues. They suffer from decompression syndrome.

Moratorium, yes, but only in the Canary Islands

Only Spain, and only the Canary Islands, has implemented an anti-sonar moratorium in Europe in areas inhabited by cetaceans. Antonio Fernández thinks that public pressure and the will of the Spanish Navy have a lot to do with it. The same goes for Vidal Martín, co-author of the work on ‘Nature’ and historical president of the Society for the Study of Cetaceans in the Canary Archipelago.

“We are very grateful to them”, emphasizes Martín, who recalls that from 1985 to 2002 there were eight other atypical mass strandings in the Canary Islands associated with naval maneuvers, so until the moratorium arrived , the populations of beaked whales on the islands, scarce in themselves, were severely punished.

Episodes like that of September 24, 2002 in Lanzarote and Fuerteventura continue to occur in other parts of the world, particularly in the Mediterranean. Antonio Fernández and Vidal Martín believe that if the example of the Canary Islands has not imposed itself, it is for political and geostrategic reasons, but not because of scientific doubts: since the signing of the anti-sonar moratorium in 2004, no more strandings occurred in the massive Spanish archipelago and cetacean mortality decreased by 25%. EFE

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