A sixth sperm whale has died on a British beach, the latest of nearly 30 to have become stranded in shallow waters on the coastline of Europe's North Sea over the past month.
As marine pathologists cut samples from the whale's carcass on the windswept expanse of sand at low tide, scientists said it was too early to know exactly why so many whales had taken a wrong turn into the North Sea.
Since mid-January, 29 sperm whales have died on beaches in the Netherlands, France, Germany and Britain. They are thought by experts to be members of the same pod, a group of young males migrating south from subpolar waters.
"What we've got here is a bunch of teenagers out having a good time but taking a wrong turning into the North Sea," said British Divers Marine Life Rescue operations manager Stephen March. "They should have gone a bit further west and into the open Atlantic," he told Reuters.
Earlier this year, more than 80 whales were beached on the shore in India.
Mass strandings of sperm whales are not uncommon in the region historically, with sightings dating back to the 16th century. In the 1760s, six of the 35-ton whales swam into the river Thames River before dying.
From the 19th century onwards, however, as whale hunting intensified, there were fewer such incidents.
Experts said the latest beachings could be a sign of a recovery in the sperm whale population following protection measures passed in the 1980s. The species is currently listed as "vulnerable" by nature authorities.
"It is quite possible that we will see more sperm whale strandings in the North Sea in future and we will have more mass strandings if the population is recovering," said Paul Jepson, a reader at the Institute of Zoology in London.
At Hunstanton, in eastern England, crowds gathered to see the doomed sperm whale — the same species that inspired Herman Melville's classic 19th-century novel "Moby Dick" — while rescue workers waded in the shallows, powerless to help.
The mammals' size makes refloating them difficult, and they suffer rapid organ failure, often dying within 24 hours.
The latest cause of death will not be determined from tissue samples for some months, and even then, the reason why the whales ended up in the North Sea may never be known, the experts said.
"They just can't get out again because it is completely the wrong habitat for them: it is far too shallow and there's not a lot of deep-sea squid for them to feed on," Jepson said.
Once the pathologists have finished with the sixth whale, which died on Thursday night, a low-loader truck will move in to carry the carcass to a landfill site.