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Sunday, August 04, 2019
Dozens of beachgoers helped save a pod of beached whales. (CNN, NY Times)
Dozens of beachgoers helped save a pod of beached whales
(CNN)Dozens of beachgoers stepped in to help several pilot whales that beached on a coastal Georgia island on Tuesday, according to local authorities and videos shared on social media.
Dixie McCoy, who witnessed the rescue and posted live footage of it on Facebook, told CNN at least 20 whales came near the shore of St. Simons Island's East Beach.
About five or six whales from the pod beached themselves, and bystanders worked to push the animals back to sea, Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) spokesman Tyler Jones told CNN in an emailed statement.
"As we arrived at the beach, we noticed a group of people in the water. At first we thought they had dolphins doing some sort of show," McCoy said. "As we got closer, we couldn't believe what we saw."
"It was so sad to see so many whales on the beach," she continued. "Everyone was trying so hard to get them back in the water. "
It is unclear why the animals beached on the island, although pilot whales "are among the most likely species of whale to beach," according to the DNR. "They are highly social animals and will frequently follow leaders and attempt to congregate around sick or injured individuals," the DNR said.
"While stranding is a known natural occurrence, the only thing we can do is to continue pushing them out to sea," wildlife biologist Clay George said in a separate statement that the DNR released Wednesday.
Thanks to the volunteers and first responders, the majority of whales made it back to the water to continue their journey, the DNR said.
Two of them died -- one on East Beach, and the other about half mile south of St. Simons Pier on private property, the department said.
The corpses of the two animals are slated for removal and will be taken to a wildlife management area for necropsy.
Glynn County's emergency management agency called the incident "an unusual occurrence" on a Facebook post, adding that events like these "can really show the level of care and support from our community."
Pilot whales are members of the dolphin family and second in size only to the killer whale, according to the American Cetacean Society.
Pilot Whales in Georgia Are Saved From Being Beached
After a pod of whales washed up on the shores of St. Simons Island, dozens of beachgoers raced to push them out to sea.
The camera panned to the water’s edge on St. Simons Island’s East Beach in Georgia, where a row of short-finned pilot whales writhed, clicked and whistled as their shiny black bodies caught breaking waves in the late afternoon light on Tuesday.
“They’re going to die if they don’t get help,” said a woman’s voice on the video.
The woman, Dixie V. McCoy, who had her 2-year-old granddaughter in one arm and her phone in her other hand, recorded the scene on Facebook Live, capturing dozens of beachgoers and lifeguards surrounding the flailing pod of whales, shoveling water onto the animals with cupped hands. Some waded chest-deep into the water, Ms. McCoy said, despite shouts of shark sightings from the shore, to heave the creatures back out to sea.
“They were just so willing to help those poor whales,” she said. “It was a spectacular moment.”
In all, nearly 50 whales swam into shallow waters and as many as six caught in the surf were pushed back successfully, according to a spokesman at the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, part of the state’s Department of Natural Resources and one of the first organizations that arrived on the scene to help with the rescue.
Three of the whales died, including one that had to be euthanized, he said.
On Wednesday afternoon, harbor pilots located the pod of more than 40 whales in the Brunswick shipping channel. A group from the National Marine Mammal Foundation monitored the whales by boat.
“We’re cautiously optimistic that the group dodged a bullet, and that they’re now on their way to deeper water,” said Clay George, a biologist for the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division.
Crews had also flown a helicopter above the area, which is about 90 miles south of Savannah, and determined no other whales were stranded.
Pilot whales are essentially large dolphins, and can grow to 24 feet in length and weigh 6,600 pounds.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Mr. George said they were still investigating why the animals rushed to shore, an event he called “exceedingly rare in Georgia.”
Mr. George described the whales as “one- to three-ton dolphins.”
“They’re so social that if one animal in the group gets injured or sick, all the other animals in the group can follow them great distances into shore,” he said, “and then they can strand.”
Normally these creatures swim 100 miles offshore, he said, which means “something went wrong,” possibly days or weeks ago.
In the necropsy, Mr. George said researchers will be looking for ingested plastic, evidence of plastic netting or signs of an acoustic disturbance, like bombs or sonars, that could have caused one or more of the animals to swim toward land.
“Tomorrow will be the beginning of a process that could go on for potentially weeks,” he said.
Normally, added Mr. George, he would not advise humans to intervene with pilot whales, but in this case, “it was the right thing to do.”
Dr. Erin Fougeres, who administers the marine mammal stranding program for the Fisheries division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the Southeast, said that “mass strandings of pilot whales aren’t entirely uncommon for us.”
There have been about 23 mass strandings in Southeastern states since 1991, mostly along the Gulf of Mexico, but never in Georgia, she said.
The most important thing to do if you see a stranded mammal, Dr. Fougeres said, is to contact experts with NOAA by calling 1-877-WHALE-HELP in the Southeast, or through the agency’s “Dolphin and Whale 911” app.
“This event, so far, and fingers crossed, has had the best possible outcome,” she said. “We don’t often have happy endings.”