Any diver returning from ocean depths knows about the hazard of decompression sickness (DCS) or "the bends." As the diver ascends and the ocean pressure decreases, gases that were absorbed by the body during the dive, come out of solution and, if the ascent is too rapid, can cause bubbles to form in the body. DCS causes many symptoms, and its effects may vary from joint pain and rashes to paralysis and death.
But how do marine mammals, whose very survival depends on regular diving, manage to avoid DCS? Do they, indeed, avoid it?
In April 2010, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's Marine Mammal Center (MMC) invited the world's experts in human diving and marine-mammal diving physiology to convene for a three-day workshop to discuss the issue of how marine mammals manage gas under pressure. Twenty-eight researchers discussed and debated the current state of knowledge on diving marine mammal gas kineticsthe rates of the change in the concentration of gases in their bodies.
The workshop resulted in a paper, "Deadly diving? Physiological and behavioural management of decompression stress in diving mammals," which was published Dec. 21, 2011, online in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
"Until recently the dogma was that marine mammals have anatomical and physiological and behavioral adaptations to make the bends not a problem," said MMC Director Michael Moore. "There is no evidence that marine mammals get the bends routinely, but a look at the most recent studies suggest that they are actively avoiding rather than simply not having issues with decompression."
Researchers began to question the conventional wisdom after examining beaked whales that had stranded on the Canary Islands in 2002. A necropsy of those animals turned up evidence of damage from gas bubbles. The animals had stranded after exposure to sonar from nearby naval exercises. This led scientists to think that diving marine mammals might deal with the presence
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Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution