from the book, "Our Fascinating Earth"
For at least seventy million years large marine animals have sometimes deliberately committed suicide by beaching themselves. This bewildering practice continues today and is still an unresolved mystery of the sea.
In Nye County, Nevada, near the town of Berlin, is the Ichthyosaur State Monument. Here visitors can view the remains of six marine reptiles that died at this location about seventy million years ago.
At that time much of North America was covered by warm, shallow seas, with a shore and dry land existing in what is today central Nevada. In these seas swam the ichthyosaur, a large marine reptile whose life was spent in the ocean. Its body had evolved and adapted so thoroughly to a marine environment that, like the whale of today, it could not exist on land and, like its modern whale counterpart, had to come to the surface to breathe.
The six specimens were about the same size as pilot whales and apparently also shared with the whales the unfortunate habit of beaching themselves. The massive size of their chests, unsupported by water, hindered breathing, and they slowly suffocated. In fact visitors to the monument can observe that the nose of one ichthyosaur skull is partially buried downward, showing its state of agony as it tried to breath. The gentle lapping of the waves pushed the carcass up on the beach and oriented them with the beach line much as logs always lie parallel to the water's edge. As the bodies decayed, the bones were deposited in the soft ooze and eventually were covered with deposits of alluvial material.
Seventy million years later, on December 31, 1978, a group of fifty—six sperm whales swam ashore and beached themselves on a remote coastal area of Baja California. Unable to support themselves on land, their great weight soon crushed them to death. The largest recorded stranding of sperm whales occurred in 1974, when seventy—two giants swam ashore in New Zealand.
Many scientists now believe that whales often beach themselves when they feel death approaching, either as a result of illness or when trying to escape an enemy. Such a theory was partially proved by a young female pilot whale named Suzie. Pilot whales in particular are known for their tendency to beach themselves. Their skin is exceptionally sensitive to the sun and quickly blisters when they are out of water. Unable to dissipate body heat effectively, beached pilot whales die rather rapidly.
On June 13, 1973, when nine pilot whales beached themselves near Marathon, Florida, only one was still alive by the time the Florida Marine Patrol arrived on the scene. It was a young female that seemed determined to die and vigorously resisted all attempts to tow her out to sea.
Eventually the whale was taken to the Flipper Sea School, where a veterinarian treated her continuously with medications to ease her sunburned skin and fed her food highly laden with antibiotics to prevent infection. Responding to the treatment, she was christened Suzie and seemed to be well on her way to recovery.
For the next few weeks Suzie seemed to be enjoying life. She played actively in the large pool at the sea school and fed quite well. But forty—two days after her rescue she began to refuse to eat her specially medicated food, and nothing could be done to induce her to take nourishment. Three days later Suzie was dead.
An autopsy showed that she had died of pneumonia. It was noted, and is perhaps of some significance, that Suzie's body was found in the shallowest end of the pool. Many of the scientists present believe that, as she felt death approaching, Suzie was again trying to beach herself!