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Yet once they are grounded, the plight of the whales quickly becomes desperate. Under their crushing weight--1,800 lbs. for an adult--organs break down and blood circulation slows, impairing cooling and putting the animals in a state of shock. Unless rescuers can push the whales back out to sea almost immediately, the animals are usually doomed by their injuries. Explains Geraci: "They have no other way to survive except to return to the shore, which, at least, keeps them from drowning."
Human activities, though, may be part of this fatal mix. Some scientists, Geraci among them, connect a rise in marine-mammal deaths to a sharp increase in toxic plankton blooms--great eruptions of poisonous algae in the sea. As the toxins from these tiny plants pass up the food chain, they become increasingly concentrated until they contaminate the fish on which seals, sea lions and whales feed. Suspected causes of the blooms: the inadvertent fertilization of coastal waters by agriculture runoffs and, most alarmingly, the rise in seawater temperatures from global warming. If so, the death of the whales last week off Cape Cod could be a warning to us all.