Twelve Cuvier’s beaked whales (Ziphius cavirostris) have been found stranded, one after the other in recent days on the northwest coast of Cyprus. This has raised great concern regarding both the cause of the event and the devastation to the species’ population in the area.
In addition to the 12 whales found dead, it is estimated that more individuals of the same population have likely died due to the same causes; however, have not been sighted due to the vast marine space and areas of inaccessible coasts in Cyprus.
The recent earthquake in southern Turkey is not believed to be a possible cause of the strandings. According to the international literature, it is estimated that earthquakes can cause temporary disorientation in cetaceans, but there is no evidence from any marine region of the world that correlates earthquakes with extinction and cetacean death.
According to the US oceanographic agency NOAA, and based on many international scientific publications, probable cause for standing and death of Cuvier’s beaked whales is frequently due to the intense underwater noise pollution caused by the use of specific sonar frequencies during naval exercises. This has been supported in cases throughout the Bahamas, Caribbean, Canary Islands and the Mediterranean.
At the same time as the strandings are recorded, a Navtex has been issued for Russian naval exercises in the area of the Anaximander Seamounts north of Cyprus. According to the prevailing sea currents in the area, this military activity is considered the most likely cause of the strandings. At the same time, the press announced plans for a joint exercise involving the US and Cypriot navies from 4-26 February in the south of Cyprus.
It is noteworthy that the marine area of Cyprus supports significant populations of cetaceans and other important marine protected species. Many of these species have not been subject to extensive research and therefore represent significant gaps in scientific knowledge. Despite this, the same waters are regularly damaged by the naval exercises of various countries. Hydrocarbon extraction is another very important threat.
Although the value of oil and hydrocarbons is well known and the importance of naval exercises is taken for granted, we often choose to ignore the fact that marine biodiversity is an invaluable asset. It is essential that these species that are supposedly protected under international conventions as well as European and national legislation are treated as priority. The aim of these protections, despite decades of delay, is to finally defend marine mammals in practice. When this will be enforced by Cyprus, Greece and other Mediterranean countries, holding authorities accountable, remains an important question.
The navies of these countries themselves are responsible in many ways, but the fundamental duty lies with the states themselves. It is the governments of Cyprus, Greece and neighboring countries who have to set the conditions under which activities such as naval exercises are carried out, something that applies to the national waters of countries such as the US, but not to the entire maritime areas in which their fleets operate. Incidents such as the recent mass strandings of the 12 whales make us wonder whether the governments of the countries in the region are capable of comprehending the extent of this problem.
In this particular incident, the attempt to reintroduce stranded whales that were still alive into deep waters, resulting in them later washing to shore dead, highlights once again that this response practice is incorrect. It also reminds us how unprepared we are in terms of infrastructure and mechanisms to provide appropriate care to protected marine species.
It is now time for us to begin to understand the responsibilities of our generations. In just a few decades, species that have survived for millions of years will be in danger of extinction. The responsibility for this is shared by all of us without exception.