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Mass Whale Stranding in Georgia Kickstarts Monumental Rescue Effort

Beachgoers and wildlife authorities rallied around a group of stranded pilot whales on Tuesday.

by Sarah Emerson
Jul 17 2019, 8:10pm

Image: Georgia Department of Natural Resources

The sandy shores of a Georgia barrier island were the site of a mass whale stranding on Tuesday evening.

At least a dozen short-finned pilot whales repeatedly beached themselves on St. Simons Island before being pushed out to sea by citizen volunteers and wildlife authorities.

Most of the pod, an estimated 20 to 50 whales, were rescued after hours of tireless work said the Georgia Department of Natural Resources in a statement. Late on Tuesday, authorities predicted that two of the animals would not survive the night, and as of Wednesday morning three had died, the agency told Motherboard.

“The water was full of immense black fins and bodies rolling in the surf; these were huge animals,” David Steen, a research ecologist at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center who participated in the rescue effort, told Motherboard.

The Georgia Sea Turtle Center, a rescue and research facility that focuses on sea turtles, was asked to help a network of state and federal agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Ushering a distressed pod of 1,000 to 2,000 pound cetaceans back into the ocean is no small feat. According to Steen, resources were triaged to focus on several whales situated “very close to shore,” while they hoped that a larger group—roughly 300 feet out—wouldn’t come any closer. The team worked to maneuver the whales so they were facing offshore, encouraging them to head into deeper waters, but some seemed unwilling to swim out.

“It became gradually more apparent that [one whale] was probably not going to be swimming out to rejoin the pod and that leaves few options,” Steen said. “It did get a little heavy for me because it was making noises and I was imagining that it was communicating to the rest of the pod, which seemed to be waiting just offshore.”

It’s not yet clear why they beached themselves, but pilot whales are known for some of the largest strandings ever witnessed.

A pod of 1,000 famously swam ashore during a 1918 event on New Zealand’s Chatham Islands. In 2017, 416 whales became stranded in Farewell Spit, New Zealand, and nearly 70 percent of them perished.

“Stranding is a known natural occurrence,” said a spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “In instances like this one, continuing to push them out to sea, with hopes that they would stay at sea, was the only option.”

There are several prevailing theories for why pilot whales do this. Cetaceans are social creatures that live in groups, and it’s possible that one confused whale can lead an entire pod astray. Necropsies of stranded whales also suggest that sinus and ear parasites or injuries from seismic activity, such as US Navy sonar tests or deepsea oil exploration, can inhibit a whale’s senses and ability to navigate its surroundings.

The dead whales were taken by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources for necropsies “to assess their prior health and cause of death,” the agency said.

At the moment, the surviving individuals are moving “in the right direction,” but “the threat of a repeated stranding has not passed,” it added. The National Marine Mammal Foundation will continue to monitor the whales to ensure they remain at sea.

“It was an incredible reminder of the fascinating creatures living on this planet alongside us, even if we seldom get the chance to see them up close and firsthand,” Steen said.