More than two dozen dolphins bit the dust in the U.K. on Monday by intentionally beaching themselves, and possible explanations for this bizarre behavior have been flying around ever since.
The morbid scene happened in Cornwall, the far southwestern tip of England. One of the leading researchers, Vic Simpson of the nearby Wildlife Veterinary Investigation Centre, said the dolphin disaster could have been a mass suicide, reminiscent of some kind of cryptic cult. According to the Daily Mail, some Cornwall residents helped a few of the 26 dolphins back into the water, only to see the suicidal marine mammals intentionally beach themselves again. The dolphins had inhaled mud that clogged their lungs and stomachs, but Simpson could offer no reason why they would do this, other than some kind of crazed panic.
Yesterday The Guardian reported that the Royal Navy had been playing war games in the area, including possibly setting off depth charges not far from the Cornish coast. Some speculate that the disturbance could have sparked the aquatic mammals’ freak-out, but other scientists aren’t convinced. They say it’s more likely the dolphins were pursued by a killer whale and found themselves in the shallow and unfamiliar waters of the River Percuil, which triggered their suicides. Simpson says the dolphins could have had an infection; perhaps parasites turned them in “zombies,” as scientists have seen in caterpillars, cockroaches, and suddenly suicidal grasshoppers. But so far nothing like that has been found.
Dolphin suicide has been reported before—single dolphins under the stress of captivity have killed themselves by battering their heads against the wall or refusing to come up for air. Recently the body counts have been rising: Last autumn in Iran, 152 dead striped dolphins washed up on a beach within a week, leaving scientists and dolphin lovers similarly distraught.
British scientists say it could be months before their tests are complete, so don’t count on knowing soon why so many bright marine mammals apparently wanted to die. With increasing acidity and pollution in the ocean, and now dolphin suicides, the news for marine life just gets worse and worse.