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Ballycroy beset by bereaved whales

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Whales

Ballycroy beset by bereaved whales


Ciara Moynihan


Residents along the Ballycroy coastline have reported a large numbers of whales – between 15 and 20 – behaving in a threatening and menacing manner over recent days. A marine expert has linked the unusual activity to the recent burial of a dead whale on Dooriel Beach in the area.
The pod of sperm whales has been circling the environs of Dooriel, edging ever closer to the shore. Normally, sperm whale pods are populated solely by females and their calves, as the males prefer to roam on their own. Unusually, this pod is made up of juvenile males. Even more unusually still, the pod has been sending out loud echolocation vocalisations in a united ‘chorus’ – apparently in a concerted effort to locate a specific object. The calls, which sound like ‘clangs’, are loud enough to be heard from the shoreline, confusing some locals, who have mistaken them for calls to Mass.
The whales have also been slapping the surface of the water with their immense tail fins in a coordinated fashion, sending ‘miniature tsunamis’ towards the shore, threatening to upend local fishing vessels and frightening beachgoers and their dogs.    
Speaking to The Mayo News yesterday (Monday), Italian marine scientist Aprilis Balatro said she believes the juvenile whales are searching for the body of a sperm whale that was buried on the beach in early March after it washed up there several weeks previously.
Ms Balatro, author of ‘Buried at Sea: Sperm Whales and Watery Graves’, explained that scientists have recently discovered that whales, like their landlubber counterparts, elephants, follow specific death rituals. Elephantine death rituals are well documented, with the mammals ‘burying’ their dead, covering deceased members of their herd with leaves and earth, and frequently returning to visit the burial ground.
Sperm whales, sometimes called elephants of the sea due to their enormous size, show similar behaviour. Capable of holding their breath for 90 minutes at a time, they work together to drag the giant carcasses of deceased whales down to the sea bed, laying them in pre-prepared crypts gouged out in the sea floor using their tails. The bodies of the whales are then covered in sand. Objects of interest – such as large conch shells and sea urchins – have even been used to decorate the graves. (Sadly, an unexploded WWII mine was once dropped on a deep-sea grave by a pod of mourning whales, with disastrous consequences.)
Ms Balatro believes that the bereaved Ballycroy juveniles may have worked out that the body of their missing pod member is buried on Dooriel Beach. Worryingly, Balatro says that the whales are likely to become louder and more aggressive in their efforts to retrieve the carcass for a burial ‘more fitting’ to their species. They could start hurling rocks at beachgoers with their tails, or even rush the shore in a bid to uncover the buried whale.
Such actions could not only destroy the beach – a local beauty spot – they could endanger the whales themselves. However, according to Balatro, gangs of juvenile sperm whales show little regard for their own mortality, and even display pleasure in rowdiness when egged on by the clanging calls of their peers.  
Balatro believes that two solutions to the worsening situation exist. Mayo County Council could exhume the Dooriel Beach whale and drag it back out to sea, where the waiting whales would no doubt retrieve it and bury it, and be thereby appeased. The only other option available to the council is a distraction tactic. This would involve luring a young female whale to the area in the hope that she will prove irresistible to the young males. Female whales prefer warmer, tropical waters, and so she will head south in search of higher temperatures – hopefully with the gang of lusty juvenile males in tow.
The Mayo News understands that an unattached female whale of ‘loose character’, named Talulah, could be enticed to carry out the job in return for three tons of Clare Island salmon and a bottle of Jameson.
Mayo County Council was contacted yesterday for comment on Aprilis Balatro’s theory, but it has yet to respond.
Meanwhile, Ballycroy residents are advised to avoid the beach and invest in ear plugs. The ear plugs should be synthetic rather than the old-fashioned type made with whale blubber, the mere whiff of which would only serve to enrage the grieving whales even further.


*Readers affected by this article are encouraged to note the date of its publication.