Whale corpses spark probe by CSI crackteam
The death of ocean giants on North Sea coasts is a sad event, but it gives marine scientists a valuable chance to detect man-made dangers.
First, a body washes up on a beach in eastern England. Then another. And another.
Soon, people living in two coastal communities have five deaths on their hands.
Things take a further macabre twist when it emerges that more than a dozen bodies are littering the shores of Holland and Germany.
What could possibly link the deaths?
A CSI team, dispatched to hunt for clues, faces a race against time. Scavengers and saltwater will devour the carcasses and destroy potentially vital evidence.
No, it's not a plot lifted from the latest series of The Bridge. This is life at the gory end of zoological research.
The CSI team are not crime scene investigators, but members of the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme, a specialist team based at the Zoological Society of London in Regent's Park, whose work was thrown into sharp relief last week when five sperm whales were found stranded on beaches in Hunstanton, Norfolk, and Skegness, Lincolnshire, both in England.
"We weren't the ones who gave it the name; it's entirely fortuitous that the initials are CSI," said Rob Deaville, the programme's project manager.
"But there is a degree of truth in it. You're trying to find what happened to bodies on a beach."
Set up in response to a 1988 virus that killed thousands of European seals, the CSIP is celebrating its 25th year.
Now, with more than a century's worth of data to draw on, the programme has become a zoological treasure trove. In the quarter of a century it has been operating, the CSIP has recorded almost 13,000 strandings of porpoises, whales, turtles, seals and basking sharks, conducted 3,500 postmortems, and collected 80,000-plus samples.
Funded by the Department for the Environment and the Scottish and Welsh governments, the programme carries out between 100 and 150 post-mortems on the 600 or so strandings that occur each year around the UK shoreline.
Selecting which creatures to examine depends on several factors.
"Thankfully, everyone now has camera phones," Mr Deaville said. "We try to ascertain what it is and ask whether it is in a fresh enough condition. Can we access it safely? Often they are stranded in inaccessible locations."
In the latest strandings, Deaville and his team were able to examine four of the sperm whales. A fifth was too far out on mudflats, which may have been littered with ordnance from a nearby military range.
The programme's chief remit is to establish causes of death, but Mr Deaville said that, as distressing as it is to see the carcass of a whale or porpoise washed up on a beach, much good can come from it.
He explained: "We use the opportunity to learn more about species which are incredibly hard to study in the wild. The sperm whale is a case in point.
"They spend a fraction of their life at the surface, most of it at depth. So although it's a tragic event, it does give us a great chance to collect a range of material."