Is 'pilot whale' really the best name for this sea creature?

People turned out in their hundreds to help save the pilot whales after pods were stranded at Farewell Spit.
MARTIN DE RUYTER/FAIRFAX NZ

People turned out in their hundreds to help save the pilot whales after pods were stranded at Farewell Spit.

OPINION: If ever there was a classic misnomer, it came when someone in their wisdom decided to name a particular species of cetacean, a "pilot whale".

For a start, they are dolphins, not whales, and the term "pilot" is probably the most inappropriate appellation for this mammal as they seem to have great difficulties with their navigation.

I certainly wouldn't want to be in an aircraft piloted by one of these creatures. We'd probably end up landing in the middle of the Sahara Desert.

A volunteer waters down a pilot whale stranded on Farewell Spit.
IAIN MCGREGOR/FAIRFAX NZ

A volunteer waters down a pilot whale stranded on Farewell Spit.

At the time of writing more than 400 whales have stranded at Farewell Spit in Golden Bay and at least 300 have died, despite the heroic efforts of more than 100 volunteers who drenched the stranded pilot whales with water, wrapped them in wet blankets and even sang to them.

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They also formed a human chain to prevent refloated pilot whales returning to the beach.

This was one of New Zealand's worst whale strandings and it was tragic to see so many magnificent creatures perish and I couldn't help wondering why pilot whales are so prone to unwitting self-destruction. There are about 85 strandings around New Zealand each year and many more around the world.

Well, it appears it's still a bit of a mystery, although one theory is that Farewell Spit's long protruding coastline plays havoc with the pilot whales' navigation systems.

They use echo location in a manner similar to bats, who use sounds waves to locate and identify objects. Unfortunately, gentle sloping beaches can literally prove a death trap and as pilot whales are particularly social animals, when they run aground it's usually in large groups.

Four hundred pilot whales beached on a remote island in the Falklands in 2011 and they all died. There have also been significant strandings at Cape Cod, Massachusetts (178 common dolphins in 2012) and Tasmania (two groups of pilot whales beached in a remote corner of the island resulting in more than 200 deaths).

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Pilot whales are considered to be one of the most social marine mammals and while their herding instinct can help them survive in other circumstances, when a pilot whale beaches its cry of distress prompts other members of the group to come to its aid, often with fatal consequences.

But it's not just the unfortunately named pilot whales that are prone to stranding. After doing a bit of research I discovered that a year ago, in Europe, a considerable number of their "big cousins", the sperm whales, also succumbed to running aground, although in significantly smaller numbers to the pilot whale pods. Deaths of the giant mammals were recorded in the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands and Germany.

I was intrigued to discover that three of these massive creatures washed up on the beach last winter at the Lincolnshire seaside resort of Skegness, the scene of many of my childhood summer holidays.

I have to say that "Skeggy", as we always called it, is hardly renowned for its climate – the town's motto "Skegness is so bracing" says it all – but hundreds of people flocked to the resort last February to take advantage of a rare chance to view the dead animals at close quarters.

A local ice cream vendor had the rare privilege of opening his stall on a wintry February day – and selling out.

The crowds continued for four days before the stench of rotting carcases prompted to local authorities to undertake the formidable task of disposing of the bodies.

However, the locals didn't feel it appropriate to celebrate the temporary boost to Skegness's economy, a particularly commendable attitude given that the town frequently figures in statistical analyses of the most deprived places in Britain.

That's a fact that probably explains why my parents could afford to holiday there.

 - Stuff

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