A summer afternoon on the beach quickly turned into a fight to save a herd of disoriented pilot whales, as vacationers on a popular island in Georgia joined the lifeguards and state wildlife personnel who prevented dozens of these large marine mammals ran aground and died.
Authorities are hopeful that they had saved most of the short-finned pilot whales that were swimming dangerously close to shore on Tuesday on the island of St. Simons, about 70 miles south of Savannah.
The pilots of the port spotted a large group of whales in the navigation channel early Wednesday and, mid-afternoon, they swam in deeper water about 6 miles from the coast, said Clay George, wildlife biologist at the Department of Natural of Georgia.
He said that conservationists from the National Marine Mammal Foundation who followed the herd by boat on Wednesday counted at least 45 whales, which were actively vocalizing and swimming. George said he was “cautiously optimistic” that they would keep moving towards the sea.
“They are talking about animals that should be living 100 miles from the coast,” said George. “So something went wrong … They should not be in a situation where they can feel sand under them.”
Pilot whales, members of the dolphin family, can grow up to 20 feet (6 meters) long and weigh up to 3 tons (2.7 metric tons). They are often involved in mass strandings, in part because of their social nature, according to the American Cetacean Society.
Three whales died on the beach in Georgia, including one that officials decided to euthanize her.
George indicated that the necropsies were planned to determine if the whales were sick and to look for other clues as to why they might have reached land.
The video posted online showed bathers and lifeguards throwing water at the whales near the coast and, in some cases, trying to get them away from the beach. George said that most of the whales arrived at a distance of 50 feet (15 meters) from the coast, and several attempted to stray several times.
“That is a scary situation because most of those animals are probably healthy and just followed others to the shore,” said George.
“Most of them fortunately remained in shallow water. If they had beached, they would probably have ended up dead, “he added.
A helicopter searched for more beached whales by air and found none, said Rick Lavender, spokesperson for Georgia DNR.
It is known that pilot whales are stranded several times over a prolonged period.
In July 2002, approximately 60 pilot whales died or were culled in Cape Cod, Massachusetts and on nearby beaches. The whales were stranded in three batches for two days.
Pilot whales have a social hierarchy and are known to stay together, even when some become sick or injured, said Tony LaCasse, spokesman for the New England Aquarium in Boston.
“They tend not to leave animals behind,” said LaCasse. “In an environment close to the coast, that may be your death sentence.”