Future Uncertain For Stranded Pilot Whales

by Alan Pollock
(Chronicle 7/30/99)
WEST CHATHAM --- The outlook is tenuous for two young pilot whales rescued from Harding's Beach Monday morning. The whales suffered from dehydration and weakness, and were placed under round-the-clock observation at a Connecticut aquarium. Even if they survive the rehabilitation, the whales may have a difficult time adjusting to life in the wild because of their age. Rescuers from the Cape Cod Stranding Network recovered the two whales--one nine feet and the other 10 feet long--at around 10 a.m. Monday. Resting on foam rubber pads in the back of a pickup truck and a special trailer, the whales were examined by veterinarians from the New England Aquarium, while volunteers poured water over the animals to keep them cool and moist. Like all whales, pilot whales are air-breathing mammals, but they tend to become severely injured when they beach. Without the buoyancy of the water to support them, the whales eventually collapse under their own weight.
Wringing wet beach towels over the pilot whale to keep it cool and moist, volunteers await the arrival of a veterinarian. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

The volunteers were able to stabilize the whales, and a used a rented U-Haul van to transport them to the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, the nearest facility with available rehabilitation tanks. Such a trip is inherently stressful to the animals. At least one of the two whales is believed to have been ill, which might explain why it left its pod. Because pilot whales are herd animals, a healthy whale may have followed the sick one to shore, experts say. They had apparently been swimming just offshore for around 24 hours; Harwich Harbormaster Tom Leach said the first of three whale sightings came in early in the day Sunday, about a quarter mile east of Wychmere Harbor.

At first, Leach found it hard to believe that there was actually a whale in Nantucket Sound. "In 25 years, I've never seen one in here," Leach said. Having briefly spotted what appeared to be the back side of a brown whale, Leach contacted the Coast Guard and the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown. There were concerns that the animal might be an extremely endangered Northern Right Whale. Several hours later, Leach had a report of two dolphins swimming near Red River Beach. He arrived to find a crowd of several hundred people on shore watching the animals, which were about 75 feet from shore. "They were just swimming side by side, slowly moving around in circles near the beach," Leach said. In hindsight, Leach said, the animals must have been the pilot whales. With help from lifeguards on their rescue boards and Recreation and Youth Director Ann Schwiezer, the whales were slowly corralled and moved out to deeper water.

The next sighting happened at around 11 p.m. Sunday, and was reported to the Chatham Police Department; upon investigation, the whales could not be found. It was around 8 a.m. that the animals were discovered on Harding's Beach. Dr. Andy Stamped, the New England Aquarium veterinarian who made the initial assessment of the pilot whales, said he has real concerns about the whales' ability to recover, given that they are separated from the rest of their pod. "They are young animals," he said. "We're hoping for the best, but we're cautious about that." Deb Adamson, a spokeswoman at the Mystic Aquarium, said that statistically, less than five percent of beached marine mammals survive; that statistic improves to 25 percent for animals that make it to a rehabilitation center. Still, in their first day at the aquarium, the whales seemed to acclimate quickly to the pool, and one of the whales readily ate fish offered to it; the other one had to be given nourishment. "We're encouraged by the first 24 hours," Adamson said.