Dead whales have been turning up on the beaches in Maine. Some of them are rarely seen in this area, and no one can figure out what killed them. Now scientists think sonar is giving whales the same kind of “bends” that deep sea divers get.

“The only way we can explain these findings is that it is a condition very similar to decompression sickness in humans,” says marine specialist Paul Jepson. “Sonar may cause a disease like the bends.” Underwater sonar is used by the military to detect submarines. Patricia Reaney writes that researchers have found bubbles in the tissue of stranded whales and dolphins that are similar to the effects of decompression sickness (DCS) in humans.

Scientists think the sonar signals disorientate the animals, forcing them to come up to the surface too quickly, which could create damaging nitrogen bubbles in their tissue. “It is widely accepted that there is a link between naval sonar use and mass strandings, predominately of big whales; what hasn’t been fully understood is what the mechanism would be,” Jepson says.

Fourteen beaked whales found stranded in the Canary Islands after a nearby military exercise last year showed evidence of DCS. They began to appear on the beaches about four hours after the start of the sonar activity. Stranded beaked whales have also recently been found along the coast of Maine. “Beaked whales have the highest levels of nitrogen in their tissues normally because they dive so deep and that would be consistent with why it is the beaked whales that are most severely affected by sonar exercises,” Jepson says.

John Richardson writes in that the carcasses of a humpback whale, five minke whales and a rarely seen beaked whale have been found along the Maine coast in recent weeks.

Minke and humpback whales are fairly common in the Gulf of Maine, but never have so many whales been found dead in such a short period of time. “Adding [the beaked whale] to the list further adds to the mystery of the situation,” says Terry Stockwell of the Maine Department of Marine Resources. “I don’t know what’s going on.”

Beach goers have also reported an unusually large number of dead seals along the coast this year. “Is it related? I don’t know,” says George Liles of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The 15-foot-long beaked whale that washed onto Parsons’ Beach in Kennebunk was especially unusual, because these whales are rarely seen here, either alive or dead. “There’s just really not that much known about these animals,” says marine expert Erica Gebhart.

Because beaked whales swim in different waters and eat different prey than minkes and humpbacks, it’s not likely that fishing-gear entanglements or food poisoning could have killed them all. Liles says, “It’s hard to think of an event that could explain all of these findings.” One possible cause is sonar.

One thing we know that goes on with our government and military is secrecy.

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