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Right Whales Soar Off Flagler’s Coast, But Two Beached Pilot Whales Die in Marineland

| January 16, 2011

beached pilot whales marineland christine sullivan

A member of the Marineland\’s Dolphin Conservation Field Station tends to a beached whale Thursday. Click on the image for larger view. (© Christine Sullivan)

It’s a good news, bad news sort of thing: for whale watchers, the week just ended brought rich sightings of right whales along the Flagler County coastline. But on Thursday, two seriously ill pilot whales beached in Marineland, and died.

From December to March, the warmer waters off the coats of Florida and Georgia turn into neonatal zone for right whales, who migrate this way from the far-north Atlantic. Volunteers organized by the Marine Resources Council and sectioned into sectors along the coast keep watch, send out alerts, and at times catch critical images and video.

Seeing whales can have a profound effect on those who–sometimes after trying for years–see them with the naked eye. It can also be heartbreaking. Christine Sullivan, a member of Flagler County’s Hammock Dunes whale-watching team experienced and reported on both this week.

“We were blessed with a spectacular show by a number of Right Whales passing through our sector this morning and into the afternoon,” Sullivan wrote on her whale watch blog Wednesday. “Their unique V-shaped blows were prominent as well a lot of breaching. With many rising up and splashing down onto their backs at first I thought they were humpbacks but the team confirmed they were all right Whales that included many mothers and calves. a An email was sent out to all in Hammock Dunes which brought many out into the chilly winds to view these amazing creatures.”

The whales were off the coast for about five hours, from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., an unusually long time. Adult right whales are from 40 to 55 feet long and can weigh up to 63 tons, or close to 140,000 pounds. “These whales spend the spring, summer and fall months in the northern Atlantic, feeding in waters off Cape Cod, Nova Scotia and the Bay of Fundy,” writes Maia McGuire of the Flagler County Extension Service. “They were given the name “right whale” because they were considered to be the right whale to hunt — they float when killed, have a high yield of blubber and are slow-moving whales found relatively close to shore.”

On Thursday, Sullivan saw a different scene when she chanced by Marineland as two pilot whales beached in the vicinity of the Georgia Aquarium Dolphin Conservation Field Station in Marineland, where staffers immediately went into emergency mode. There was never, however, a question as to the ultimate fate of the whales. “You could see their ribcages and I heard the word ’emaciated,’ so you could tell they’d been sick for a while,” Sullivan said Sunday evening. Pilot whales sometimes get sick from bacteria infecting the pod they’re traveling in. It was not a case of whales beached because of shallow water. “They were definitely beyond saving,” Sullivan said. That’s not to say the conservation station’s scientists didn’t have serious work to do.

“Watching these people in action yesterday I immediately knew this is what they live for (even though in most cases the stranded mammals rarely make it) and proved over the next four hours to be a compassionate and organized team of professionals,” Sullivan blogged.

She described the scene:

The first DCFS staffers to arrive jumped into the water and helped the whales stay upright. The rest of the team was already in full alert mode with trucks rigged for such disasters on their way as was the local marineland veterinarian. In those short ten to fifteen minutes of waiting the wind kicked up a notch making the “feels like” temperature somewhere in the 40’s – not so great for those in the water not dressed for the occasion.

Once assembled the team worked like a well oiled swat team and concurrently took care of the whales as well as members of the team. Wind jackets were handed out, wet suits were donned and dry towels shared while health stats like breaths and heart beats per minute were being shouted to the shore team taking copious notes.

Then the team collectively gathered to prepare the whale for the vet to get blood samples. Typically it is disease that makes the whales beach and the results of the blood tests, usually known the next day, will help determine what caused these whales to become ill. Again, one of the main programs the DCFS is researching.

Other volunteers were involved including a local sheriff and a few from the Marineland right whale watch volunteer program and Marineland. While it wasn’t a happy ending for the whales hopefully whatever is learned from this beaching by the DCFS team will help other mammals.

Sullivan caught one of the beached whales on video:


Dolphin Conservation Field Station staffers at work:


The January 12 right whale sightings off Hammock Dunes:


Right whale sightings may be reported to the Marine Resources Council at 888/979-4253.

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4 Responses for “Right Whales Soar Off Flagler’s Coast, But Two Beached Pilot Whales Die in Marineland”

  1. Cheryl says:

    So who is it that makes the decision not to spend any money or time in trying to save them? I think it is just assumed that a beach whale has beached because they are ill or something else is wrong instead of truly understanding what is wrong and why it happened. There have been reports that whales that have beached and been “euthenized” if you want to call it that, have, after a necropsy, been found to have nothing physically wrong with them. As far as euthenizing, there have been disturbing videos out there showing exactly what happens to these beached whales when they are euthenized…it is neither quick nor painless. The “euthanization” of the whale on Mustang Island, TX is a prime example.

    It states in the article one of the main programs of DCSF is research and I believe anybody involved in research does not see a problem with “acceptable loss” to further their research. Euthenizing the animal is not always in the best interest of the animal, but it seems that if the cost and effort of saving them outweighs any benefit from saving them (other than the fact that a life has been saved and returned to where it belongs), then the decision to euthanize is made.

  2. Tigerlily4 says:

    Cheryl: Any experienced medic or veterinarian can see from the photos and video that these Pilots whales are emaciated and dehydrated well beyond the point of “no hope” – in fact I have never seen a worse example. It’s also highly likely they had been suffering with lung parasites and infections for some time. They would have experienced an extremely painful, lingering death without euthanasia, which was the only option in this instance.

  3. Justice for All says:

    Perhaps the better question is what effect will a desalinization plant have on these magnificent creatures?

  4. Cheryl says:

    Tigerlilly4: I’m speaking in general terms about who ultimately has the final say in euthanizing whales and why is it that dolphins are more likely to have more time, money and effort spent on saving/rehabilitating? Is it because of their size or that if the dolphin cannot be rehabilitated and set free there are more places that would want to take a captive dolphin rather than a whale? Or does it come down to how much it’s going to cost? Is there a governing agency that sets standards? Or is this left up to the individual organizations attempting a “rescue”?

    I would never want any living being to suffer unnecessarily which brings me to the methods of euthanization and back to the disturbing “euthization” on Mustand Island, TX. If the whale had that much energy to thrash in pain after having being stabbed, then it makes me wonder if “euthanization” was the correct course of action. It is not my intention to critize rescue organizations, but understand the process in making these types of decisions. Also, I don’t believe that there is enough scientific information available on the anatomy and workings of bigs whales for anyone to make a life or death decision with any sort of exacting certainty that a whale who has stranded is beyond saving.

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