At the Beach — July 21, 2014 at 5:00 am

Behind the Scenes of a Beached Whale Rescue

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miblue5 / iStock / thinkstock.com

miblue5 / iStock / thinkstock.com

The rescue of a beached whale is a complicated matter, to say the least. When a whale washes ashore onto the coast, rescuers only have so much time to work with before the creature perishes. When the rescuee weighs multiple tons,  you can imagine how difficult it is to return a whale to its proper habitat.

If you have ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes of beached whale rescue, then you’ll definitely want to read on.

It Starts With a Phone Call
Most whale rescue attempts begin with a phone call. It’s usually a fisherman or a beach dweller who first comes across the stranded whale. Usually, the person who first sees the whale calls the local authorities, who eventually communicate the matter with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program (MMHSRP).

A Team Effort
The NOAA maintains teams of volunteers throughout every coastal state. These teams undergo training and are ready to pounce when they receive a command from the NOAA. Trained biologists in the area are also called upon to help.

A Matter of Time…
Whales are heavy creatures, and they need the buoyancy of water to lighten the load of their massive organs. When they’re stranded in shallow waters or completely beached, they’re in tremendous danger.

Rescuers know that they need to work quickly to get the whale back into deep waters—a matter made even more complicated in mass strandings, like the case of the 51 pilot whales who washed ashore in Florida last year.

…and of Resources
Stranded whales are often found in relatively remote places, which unfortunately means that access to important equipment—including medicine, cranes, heavy movers—is often nonexistent. All too often, there is simply not enough time to wait for the equipment to arrive.

Redirecting the Whales
If whales are swimming in shallow waters, rescuers can attempt to redirect them back out to sea. This can be done in a few ways: rescuers can use sound to try to guide the whales out, either using recordings of the whale species’ own calls to beckon it towards a certain direction, or by playing the sounds that a predator would emit to try to steer the whales away from the shore. Rescuers can also use multiple boats to corral the whales out into deeper water.

Helping Beached Whales
When a whale is beached and incapable of swimming, rescuers attempt to keep the whale alive by digging a trench around the whale, helping to relieve the pressure of its weight, and by keeping the whale’s skin damp and cool with wet cloths.

If rescuers are able to secure the right equipment in time, the complicated process of lifting the whale and moving it into the water is undertaken.

If it is impossible to return the whale back to the water in time, the whale is usually euthanized. It’s an awful outcome, but usually better for the whale than allowing nature to run its course—the death of a beached whale can be a slow and grueling process.

The Aftermath
Rescuers try to track the whales, if the suitable tracking devices are available in time. Sadly, for whatever reason—illness, exhaustion, or possibly something else—some whales become re-stranded shortly after their rescue. Others die from the stress of from whatever made them beach in the first place. The good news is that some of these whales do survive.

What To Do
If you spot a beached whale, call the local authorities immediately. Do not attempt to approach the whale on your own—you never know when that powerful tail will decide to thrash, or if they might carry diseases. Let the trained professionals lead the rescue.

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