Map of whale stranding event, 30-31 May 2008. Approximately 100 melon-headed whales stranded in the Loza Lagoon system in Madagascar. The stranding was caused by seismic testing conducted by an ExxonMobil. Graphic: IWC

By Katie Moore, Program Director-Animal Rescue
26 September 2013

(IFAW) – Four years ago I rushed to Madagascar to help stop over 100 melon-headed whales from stranding and dying along the islands’ shores. Like most cetacean species, melon-headed whales are very social animals. They rely on sound for communication and echolocation that are essential to reproduction, feeding and navigation. This is a difficult prospect in an ocean environment that is getting louder and louder due to human produced sounds.

This week, an Independent Stranding Review Panel (ISRP) released their scientific findings regarding that mass stranding that took place in 2008. After reviewing the stranding data and information about activities taking place in the vicinity, the panel concluded that the use of multi-beam echosounder systems (MBES) was “the most plausible and likely behavioral trigger for the animals initially entering the lagoon system”, leading to an inability to return to the open ocean and subsequent stranding.

This finding is incredibly significant, as this is the first known stranding event closely associated with relatively high-frequency mapping sonar systems.

I responded to that stranding event with CT Harry, another member of the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s (IFAW) Marine Mammal Rescue and Research (MMRR) team, and colleagues from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). IFAW MMRR was asked to participate because of our vast experience with mass stranding response and particularly our innovative mass stranding prevention program.

In May-June of 2008, the Wildlife Conservation Society led an international stranding response team to a mass stranding of approximately 100 melon-headed whales in the coastal mangroves of northeastern Madagascar. WCS researchers and other stranding team members worked to capture some of the melon-headed whales in order to transport them to the open ocean. The stranding was caused by seismic testing conducted by an ExxonMobil. Photo: T. Collins / WCSSo back in June of ’08, and within 24 hours of notification, we were in the air with loads of gear headed for Antsohihy in Northwest Madagascar. Many of the animals had already died before the event had made global news, but we hoped we could make a difference for those that remained out of their normal habitat, seemingly trapped in the lagoon system. 

Our efforts met with mixed success. 

We used boats to try to herd the animals from the Port of Antsohihy, to the open water of the ocean - a distance of over 69km. We had never attempted to herd animals such a long distance, over such a wide area (almost 7.4 km at its widest). Although we moved many of the animals closer to the entrance of the lagoon each day, only a few animals made it out of the lagoon during our efforts.

We left much of our equipment behind so local responders could continue their efforts to save the animals.

The impact of sonar, seismic and other noisy industrial activities on marine mammals extends well beyond Madagascar. Ocean noise pollution is a growing problem, and a global one, filling the underwater world with a cacophony of sounds from explosives, pile-driving, drilling, dredging, seismic blasts and ship noise.

IFAW is working around the world to address these threats and improve approaches to offshore oil, gas and industrial development and shipping. From the feeding grounds of endangered Western Gray Whales near Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East, to critical whale habitat areas around Australia, to the Atlantic coasts of the United States and Europe, IFAW is working to promote practical solutions that reduce the deadly threat of ocean noise pollution  and protect our planet’s whale populations. [more]

Ocean noise cited in '08 whale mass stranding off the coast of Madagascar via

In 2008, approximately 100 melon-headed whales stranded in the Loza Lagoon system in Madagascar.  The response effort was multi-faceted and included local people, government officials, conservation organisations and marine mammal experts.  A significant amount of information was collected and, several years later, the IWC facilitated a review of the circumstances of the stranding in conjunction with the US Marine Mammal Commission, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management,  ExxonMobil Exploration and Production (Northern Madagascar) Ltd, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Government of Madagascar. An independent scientific review panel (ISRP) of five experts was invited to conduct a formal examination of the available facts. Links to the report, which became available on 25th September 2013 and the associated material considered by them can be found below.

Key References (click to download)

ISRP. Executive summary of the Panel’s Report (English)

ISRP. Executive summary of the Panel’s Report (French)

ISRP. Full report of the Panel

Background Materials:

KETTEN, D.R. Report related to CT scans

DENNISON, S. Imaging reports related to post-mortems of ears

WCS & IFAW. Final Report

MELTON, H.R., et. al. Summary of information

MELTON, H.R., et. al. Summary of timeline

JASCO zip file - Acoustic Modeling

REEB, D., et. al zip file - Environmental Reports

MELTON, H.R., et. al. zip file - Industrial Activities

MELTON, H.R., et. al. zip file - Known Anthropogenic Sound

AD HOC COMMITTEE zip file - Meeting Notes

BROVEY, B, zip file (160Mb externally hosted) - Satellite Imaging

JASCOURT, S. zip file (40Mb externally hosted)- Weather Analysis 


Independent review of a 2008 mass stranding in Madagascar



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