or 150,000 alleged dead penguins no one has seen
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina––Two of the most timeless axioms in journalism and a great opportunity to educate the public about endangered dolphins and global warming were overlooked during the third week of February 2016 amid an international media scrum and a frenzy of activist denunciations of Argentine beachgoers who did not do what they were alleged to have done.
The outrage began with a cell phone video of the February 10, 2016 incident taken and posted to YouTube by beach visitor Hernan Coria. The video showed an unidentified man discovering the remains of a young La Plata dolphin rolling in the surf near Santa Teresita in Buenos Aires province.
Classed as a river dolphin, La Plata dolphins are the only river dolphins who spend their lives mainly in saltwater estuaries, and are the smallest dolphins found in oceanic environments, growing barely to five feet in length. Also called Franciscana dolphin, La Plata dolphins have the longest snouts relative to body size of any dolphin.
Though considered endangered, with a total population estimated at about 3,000, La Plata dolphins are seen in coastal waters from circa Ubatuba, Brazil to Península Valdés, Argentina.
La Plata dolphins can be mistaken for newborn bottlenose dolphins, but not by marine life experts.
Signs of life
As a crowd gathered, the first man and several others examined the dolphin, then pronounced her dead.
There are four simple tests to determine whether any mammal is living or dead: whether the mammal is moving, whether the mammal is breathing, whether the mammal has a pulse, and whether the remains are still warm.
The men gathered around the La Plata dolphin appear to have applied all four tests before gently laying her remains on the sand. Two adolescent boys then approached. A crowd gathered. Some of the crowd made attempts to return the dead dolphin to the water, but she made no attempt to swim, or move in any way. Her blowhole showed no sign of either respiration or a pulse.
More people agreed that the dolphin was dead.
Eventually some of the crowd tried to carry the dead dolphin up the beach while others touched her and a few took cell phone photos over the shoulders of others.
The video went viral, with links to it and commentary about it posted to more than 2.7 million web sites and social media pages by February 18, 2016.
Almost every major online news portal published accounts of the alleged incident. The accounts typically included hyperventilating damnation of the beachgoers, but not eyewitness testimony, whether from Coria or others who had been at the beach.
Neither did the major mass media accounts include direct observations from marine mammalogists, veterinarians, or––apparently––anyone with sense enough to verify rumors before amplifying them.
The Coria video reached the attention of ANIMALS 24-7 social media and photo editor Beth Clifton via the Facebook page of In Defense of Animals at about 1:45 p.m. on February 18, 2016. “This poor baby appears to have been already deceased,” Beth posted to In Defense of Animals at 1:58 p.m., after repeated viewings of the video from her perspective as a former veterinary technician, during which she saw no signs of life from the dolphin.
Checked the Spanish
Fluent in Spanish, from prior experience as police officer in Miami Beach, Florida, Beth had also listened to the dialog after noting that the versions posted by English-speaking sources failed to affirm the accompanying commentary.
No one on the scene in the video appears to have believed the dolphin was still alive when carried away.
But none of the news media running with the story seem to have remembered the Mark Twain admonition to “Get your facts first. Then you can distort ‘em as you please.”
“Get a second source”
None seem to have remembered, either, that “If your mother says she loves you, get a second source.”
Instead, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story” prevailed.
The Fundacion Vida Silvestre, the Argentine affiliate of the World Wildlife Fund, seized the opportunity to admonish the public against handling wild animals, lest the handling harm the animals, without mentioning that this dolphin was already dead.
Secondarily, the Fundacion Vida Silvestre offered some education about the endangered status of the La Plata dolphin species.
Beyond Argentina, animal advocates who should have known better were markedly less restrained.
Watson curses “baby killers”
Typical, but posted to Facebook at much greater length than the commentaries of most, was the February 18, 2016 response of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder and Greenpeace cofounder Paul Watson, headlined “A Curse on These Beach Bum Baby Killers.”
Involved in marine mammal advocacy for more than 45 years, Watson in particular should have known a dead dolphin when he saw one. But he didn’t.
Instead, Watson alleged, apparently without verifying the content of a still image taken from the Coria video, “Everyone who is in this picture or was witness to this blatant vicious act of thoughtless destruction of life is an absolute ignorant piece of crap asshole…[a] pack of ugly degenerates passing around a baby dolphin for fun and laughs,” who “are simply despicable hominid trash wasting air on this lovely planet.”
And “psycho killers”
Continued Watson, oblivious to the reality that many and perhaps most of the people shown in the Coria video had tried to rescue the dolphin, even though she was already dead, “Everyone in Argentina should be ashamed to share their nationality with people like this. Whoever these people on the beach are,” Watson said, “they are callous, uncaring, psycho killers and I hope nature has an opportunity to kick them all in the ass for this crime.”
Watson may have been in a bad mood because of the apparent failure of the 2015-2016 Sea Shepherd Conservation Society campaign against Japanese “research” whaling in Antarctic waters.
Whalers evade Sea Shepherds
Explained Death at Sea World author David Kirby for TakePart.com, “Every year over the past decade, Sea Shepherd vessels out of Australia have shadowed the Japanese fleet to monitor the annual hunt and interfere with the killing of whales. But not this year. The whalers have managed to evade Sea Shepherd by expanding their hunting grounds.”
Acknowledged Watson to Kirby just a day before the La Plata dolphin video went viral, “I think we’ve run out of time to find them. Based on their past record, they would have gotten about 333 whales by now,” filling the self-set Japanese whaling quota for the season.
Admits “angry rant”
But regardless of Watson’s frustrations, Public Radio International science, technology, and environment writer Maria Murriel had already long since set the record straight by the time Watson resumed his commentary on February 19, 2016.
“Yesterday I scribbled an angry rant about the killing of an endangered Franciscana dolphin in Argentina,” Watson began. “It reached 250,000 people with 1,400 shares, 15,000 likes and 4,500 comments. People were angry and rightfully so. These things make me exceedingly angry.
But does not apologize
“The incident happened in Argentina but it is not a reflection of all Argentinians,” Watson fumed on. “Dolphins are abused, tortured and killed in countries around the world by ignorant people seemingly devoid of empathy and compassion. Routinely we hear these horror stories from Peru, the Solomon Islands, the Caribbean islands, from Japan and Denmark, North America, Africa, Asia and many other places.
“Ignorance does not have a nationality…In my anger yesterday,” Watson acknowledged, “I dismissed the selfie taking dolphin killers as horrific human beings and I don’t apologize for that.”
Asked Maria Murriel on February 18, 2016, in an article actually distributed somewhat before Watson’s first commentary, “Did a group of photo-taking tourists really kill an endangered dolphin in Argentina? The Buenos Aires blog Infozona first posted about the incident, berating tourists for killing the animal. The story caught the attention of several tabloids that have attributed the dolphin’s death to the tourists’ manhandling. But Argentine newspaper El Clarín reported the country’s Fundación Mundo Marino [Foundation for Marine Mammals] said in a statement it wasn’t clear whether the dolphin was alive when tourists found it.
“Infozona later shared the YouTube video,” Murriel continued. “At around the 1:15 mark a woman says ‘We have to put it back in the water!’ and a man says ‘It’s dead! It’s dead!’ But even at the start of the clip, some four men examine the mammal, arguing ‘It’s dead,’ or ‘It’s dying.’ Then they carry it out of the water, and the horde forms.”
Photog confirmed dolphin was dead
Elaborated Ashitha Nagesh for Metro.co.uk the next morning, “Remember the baby dolphin who was killed by tourists wanting selfies with it? Well, the photographer who took those photos, which went viral yesterday, has said the dolphin was dead before tourists started taking selfies with it.
“According to an interview Hernan Coria did with Argentinian news outlet Telefe Noticias,” Nagesh related, “the baby Franciscana dolphin was one of many corpses that washed up on the beach.
Feeling the heat
“The water was very hot,” Coria said. “It was full of jellyfish and people were not going in the water,” a claim somewhat contradicted by the background to Coria’s close-up images, which shows at least 25 people in water deeper than their knees. “Everything happened in five minutes. The dolphin was washed up already dead. They took it back to the water, but it wouldn’t go back out.”
The real story, the overlooked story, was why the La Plata dolphin and other species died.
“Without a necropsy it is impossible to determine the cause of death,” e-mailed Aldemaro Romero Jr., Ph. D., to ANIMALS 24-7. Now dean of the College of Arts & Sciences for Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, Romero is author of more than 700 peer-reviewed publications pertaining to marine mammals and related scientific subjects.
“However,” Romero suggested, “this may be a case of overheating in the waters or an incident caused by pollution. This time is the high point of summer in Argentina.”
Possible effects of global warming in southern latitudes on regional wildlife had already made international headlines at least once in February 2016, and had touched off a comparable media stampede and activist panic.
The previous stampede and panic began with a report in the February 2, 2016 edition of the peer-reviewed journal Antarctic Science that a penguin colony on Cape Denison in Commonwealth Bay, East Antartica, has declined from about 160,000 penguins in 2011 to about 10,000 now.
“In mid-February 2010, the Rhode Island-sized iceberg B09B crashed into the bay’s Mertz Glacier. The stranded iceberg forced the penguins to walk more than 37 miles” to reach the nearest open water where they could find food, explained Live Science contributing writer Becky Oskin. “The greater the distance to dinner, the harder it is for baby chicks to get enough calories from their penguin parents,” Oskin summarized.
“150,000 penguins die”
Antarctic Science study co-author Chris Turney, of the University of New South Wales, Australia, described finding “ground littered with dead chicks and discarded eggs.”
This discovery led Guardian.com writer Bonnie Malkin to headline “150,000 penguins die after giant iceberg renders colony landlocked.”
Within days essentially the same story was reported by major mass media worldwide and amplified by more than 4.4 million social media postings.
But as with the La Plata dolphin story, the evidence did not support the hyperbolic conclusion.
“No proof yet”
Wrote Oskin, in a report later echoed by Cheyenne MacDonald for Dailymail.com, “There’s no proof yet that the birds are dead. No one has actually found 150,000 frozen penguins. In fact, experts think there’s a less horrific explanation for the missing birds: When the fishing gets tough, penguins simply pick up and move. It wouldn’t be the first time Adélie penguins marched to new digs. When an iceberg grounded in the southern Ross Sea in 2001, penguins on Ross Island relocated to nearby colonies until the ice broke up.”
Said University of Minnesota in Minneapolis penguin population researcher Michelle LaRue, “Just because there are a lot fewer birds observed doesn’t automatically mean the ones that were there before have perished. They easily could have moved elsewhere, which would make sense if nearby colonies are thriving.”
Indeed more than seven million Adélie penguins are currently nesting in nearby regions.
LaRue also pointed out that “Adélie penguin colonies always have dead birds scattered around because the carcasses don’t decompose in Antarctica’s dry, cold climate,” Oskin paraphrased. “Researchers have discovered mummified penguins and seals that are centuries old.”
Capping the episode, the British Antarctic Survey on August 4, 2020 reported from analysis of satellite photos that there are actually about 20% more penguin colonies in Antarctica than were known to exist in 2016.
“Norwegian Blue” parrots
All considered, the adult penguins allegedly dead without leaving remains might be said to resemble the mythical “Norwegian Blue” parrot said by erstwhile pet shop owner Michael Palin to have been pining for the fjords in a well-remembered 1969 edition of the television show Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
The plight of the La Plata dolphin was perhaps best described by John Cleese, who in the sketch tried to return the “Norwegian Blue” to Palin for a refund:
“He’s not pining! He’s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! He’s expired and gone to meet his maker! He’s a stiff! Bereft of life, he rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed him to the perch, he’d be pushing up the daisies! His metabolic processes are now history! He’s off the twig! He’s kicked the bucket, he’s shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisible!”