Beached Whales

Mon Jun 01 2009 by Melanie Gosling

The 44 false killer whales shot after swimming ashore at Kommetjie on Saturday were trucked under police escort to the Vissershok dump site yesterday amid sharp criticism of the public’s role in the attempted rescue.

The carcasses were taken to the dump in eight vehicles escorted by traffic officials and Metro Police and are to be dissected on site by scientists from Marine and Coastal Management (MCM) and the Mammal Research Institute.

Thousands of Capetonians flocked to Kommetjie’s Long Beach on Saturday, some to watch but hundreds to don wetsuits and try for hours to swim the animals through wild surf back to the open ocean.

But their efforts were slammed yesterday by Nan Rice of the Dolphin Action and Protection Group, who said the public had only added to the stress of the whales.

“And it’s stress that kills them,” Rice said.

She also lashed out at the “morbid curiosity of the public” and the few “prima donnas obstructing our work”.

Rice said she and her committee had worked hard to train a few groups who knew what to do with stranded whales and dolphins, and to get the message across to the public that they should not interfere.

“We have to keep the public off the beach. We can’t let this go on.”

Rice said attempts to get the animals back into the sea while they were disorientated only stressed them further.

Wally Petersen, of the Kommejtie Environmental Awareness Group, who has been trained by Rice, said yesterday: “We need a team who can be there fast and who are trained to stabilise the situation until the authorities get there.

“There were a lot of people with warm hearts who were very brave, but they were all looking for some leadership, and it was not there early on. So they started doing their own thing, thinking probably the animals would die on the shore. They won’t. They breathe air. The important thing is for them to be kept calm and for people to wait until the authorities arrive.

“When I arrived, the whales were all in a space of about 100 metres. I could tell the 50 or so people what to do, but within 10 minutes there were hundreds and everyone was doing their own thing. The whales were coming straight back in and in no time were spread along the shore for about 1.5km.

“The public were trying their best, but it is not always the best for the whales.”

Ecologist Leif Petersen, of Muizenberg, who helped swim whales out, said Rice’s reaction was a “bit of a shame”.

“It was an amazing event and there was so much goodwill, and two for sure did swim away, which makes it all worthwhile,” he said.

Initially 55 animals were stranded, and 44 were put down.

Mike Meyer of MCM said shooting the whales, a decision taken with the SPCA and the Mammal Research Institute, was a last resort. As the whales were not designed to support their body weight, their mass out of water constricted blood vessels and damaged organs.

Meredith Thornton, a scientist at the Mammal Research Institute, said no one knew for sure why whales beached.

“False killer whales are highly social and the dominant whale could have something wrong and come ashore and the others follow. Or the leader could have a navigational error.”