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Tánaiste orders Department to assist with investigation into beaked whale deaths

Since the beginning of August, a minimum of 19 Cuvier’s beaked whales washed up dead on the Irish coast.

A Cuvier's beaked whale that washed ashore in Donegal in August.
A Cuvier's beaked whale that washed ashore in Donegal in August.
Image: Conor McGuckin via IWDG

Note to readers: This article contains images of dead whales.

THE DEPARTMENT OF Foreign Affairs has agreed to assist with the investigation into the record number of Cuvier’s beaked whale deaths, following pressure from the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group. 

Since the beginning of August, a minimum of 19 Cuvier’s beaked whales washed up dead on the Irish coast while during the same period at least 16 have been found in Scotland and two in Iceland.

Concerned about the causes of death, the IWDG raised the issue with the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) as the death toll began to rise. 

Thanking the IWDG for bringing the issue to its attention, the DFA said in a statement:

The Tánaiste shared the concerns expressed by the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, has requested his officials raise this matter with the UK authorities and has promised to revert to IWDG on the outcome.

Welcoming the DFA’s response, IWDG’s strandings officer Mick O’Connell said that the poor conditions that most whales washed up in means that a post-mortem would not be conclusive.

However, O’Connell said that drift modelling to identify the whales’ origins and discussions with the British Navy and NATO should be included in the UK investigation that the DFA has agreed to assist with.

original (1) A beaked whale washed up on Gola Island. Source: Selkie Sailing

Cause of death

Cuvier’s beaked whales are thought to be one of the deepest diving whales and typically live around deepwater canyons near the edge of the continental shelf.

O’Connell said that they are seldom seen alive, with the most information about them found by examining stranded animals.

Judging from events around the world, beaked whales are susceptible to death or injury due to extremely loud man-made oceanographic noise such as that produced by low and mid-frequency naval sonar and certain types of acoustic survey used to examine the sea floor and below, according to the IWDG.

“Mass strandings of beaked whales coincidental with naval exercises have been recorded in Greece, the Canaries and the Bahamas,” O’Connell said.

Britain’s Royal Navy regularly carry out training operations using sonar while the Irish Naval service does not use sonar on its vessels during any of its activities.

When previously asked about the whale strandings the Navy said in a statement that there is “no evidence that the deaths of these marine mammals have been attributed to any Royal Navy sonar operations, trials or exercises”.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine said in a statement that there is currently an ongoing collaborate investigative project, co-funded by the Irish Government and the European Commission, to examine cetacean standings for potential causes of death.

The Department’s regional veterinary laboratories and the IWDG have been working in collaboration with and the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology to carry out a cetacean post-mortem scheme on behalf of the Marine Institute and the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

“This is Ireland’s first post-mortem scheme, which aims to establish a cause of death, and has the potential to greatly increase our understanding of the cause of stranding, as well as provide samples to explore the health and ecology of cetaceans in Ireland,” a Department spokesperson said.

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Adam Daly

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