Monday, June 1, 2009

Fifty Pilot Whales Beach Themselves in Kommetjie

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.  Sitting with them.

On Saturday morning, I received this text message from Sean: "Dude apparently 20 whales have beached at kommetjie and they are looking for volunteers to help are you keen to go?"

The answer was yes, and I set about finding more information online. There was one article up already, citing that it was actually around 47 and that more were coming ashore. It was now around 11am, and they had beached just before sunrise at about 7:30am. I saw that one had already died, and that the National Sea Rescue Institute was now inviting people with wet suits to come help them back into the water. Since it was a cold day, I set about getting some warm clothes along with my camera, and ran to meet up with my ride.

We stopped on the way and grabbed wet suits from the diving trailer, and then quickly realized that half of Cape Town was driving there to see the whales. Equipped with a long time Capetonian and GPS unit, we found a bit longer and mountainous, albeit much faster and less congested path to Kommetjie. Score.

When we arrived, I realized how spread out the problem was. There were whales all up and down the beach, each with a group of 3-7 people sitting with them. We headed down to the site, and met up with some friends that had already been there for a few hours. It felt like a disaster zone, with people running around with buckets, and volunteers passing out blankets, food, and drinks for those that had been there a long time. The beach was littered with emergency vehicles, everyone from the neighbourhood watch and the local police to sea rescue and disaster management.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.  It was like triage, whales all over.
It was like triage. Whales all over.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.  Handing out towels.
The towel lady. That's just what I called her, though.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.  Rescuers
They were getting ready to turn the whale upright.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.  Rescue Workers.
One whale was already dead when we arrived.

And despite all these officials and being several hours into this ordeal, there was very little organization or instruction for the people that were there to help. After taking some photos, I ditched my camera and clothes when I was asked to help pour water. I shuttled between about ten whales dumping water on them, especially on the dorsal fin to keep it cool. I felt a few, and they were getting very warm. The challenge is that not many people knew how to best take care of the whales, and there was not much direction coming from the officials on the beach. Generally, they were keeping the whales comfortable and keeping them upright so as not to rest them on their side organs or their side fins.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.  Pouring water on one.
Keeping this one comfortable. Note the water bucket.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.  Pilot whale close up

So.... I continued with my bucket operations. I asked if there was a plan, and got wild responses like, "They are calling in the navy to help. Whether it be a helicopter or boats or what not, we're not sure, but I hope someone comes." This came from a man that was busy digging sand from the sides of a whale, while splashing water on it and attempting to keep it upright as it rolled. I asked someone else and they remarked, "They are supposedly bringing in some trucks to transport them via road to the bay in Simon's Town near the naval base." I looked around as not much else changed. I wondered why nobody was walking around giving directions, why I hadn't heard anything over the loud speakers on the emergency vehicles, or why nobody seemed to know the plan.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa. Panorama of Spectators.
Lots of spectators flocked to watch.

At this point, I saw a few people trying to move one. I had already heard that any whales that were pushed back to the ocean were turning around and swimming right back in, but also heard that some had gotten back out. They were likely going to die on the beach, so why not try? We sat with one for about 45 minutes as we used periodic waves to move it further into the water. It was about 12-15 feet long, and probably weighed about a ton or more. Let me tell you, although it probably can be assumed, pushing a whale is hard work. It gets very tiring. For the whale as well.

We did it though, and managed to get this one into deeper water. Donning our wet suits in the icy water, we walked her out into deeper water, as far as we could. We struggled to keep her oriented toward the ocean, but she was turning back for the beach, partly because of the current. The waves were crashing pretty hard and it felt like she wouldn't get very far without be guided out past the waves. Yet this quickly becomes a dangerous ordeal when you're swimming with a stressed whale in the big waves. I was getting these huge waves crashing into me while I held onto her, getting thrown a few times and swimming back to her dorsal fin. And eventually I realized that this was becoming more dangerous than I was comfortable with, and the prospect of having a sideways whale tossed into me by the huge waves wasn't one I was ready to contend with. To complicate things, the tide was pulling me further out, so I decided that I'd go in. It wasn't worth it to risk the lives of five volunteers for a whale that was turning to rebeach anyway.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.  Swimming one of the whales out.
A few volunteers swimming with one of the pilot whales.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.  About to get hit by a big wave.
The breaking waves were pretty dangerous.

I swam back, and later found out that some people made bigger risks earlier in the day. One person needed to be rescued from a near drowning in the surf, another suffered either a broken leg or a fractured knee (or they were different people), and a third may have had broken ribs from being pinned under a rolling whale. So, I kept my safe distance while sitting with them, and decided not to swim out too far. Pushing them out was seemingly futile anyway, since any that were returned to sea were rebeaching a bit further or swimming onto the rocks even further down, causing more problems like cuts and lacerations.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.  Close up of one of the pilot whales.
I think this is the one we were sitting with.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.
Working with the whale on her own.

The general feeling was, "What must we do?". Despite interspersed rumors of some getting back to the ocean, most of these 55 were either still on the beach, dead already, or much further down on the rocks with other volunteers struggling to free them. And as they became increasingly stressed and resistant, a few started finning and sent volunteers running as it thrashed around in the water. Perhaps it was presumptuous of us to assume that they wanted to live? I'm not sure.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.  Not sure what to do.
What to do?

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.  Standing clear of a fighting whale.
This one was fighting quiet furiously once it was in the water.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa. Whale swims into the rocks.
Down the beach, on the rocks.

It was at this point that I stood next to a woman with a walkie talkie. I heard the instruction that all officials were to meet by the vehicles to make a human shield, removing people from the beach so they could all be euthanized. I went to my friends, still working with a whale, and said this was their last chance to send it out. I watched as officials told volunteers to now leave, give up on the whale that some of them had been sitting with for hours because it was not possible anymore to save them. Volunteers in turn were getting frustrated and emotional with the lack of coordinated response and direction, and refused to leave the whale. "This is a public beach, this isn't your whale, and we're still willing to try. You have no right to kill it." Indeed, many were getting stressed and tired, others seemed active and alert... yet it seemed very few people knew much about the whales or their chances. I didn't, for sure, so who do you believe? Emotions were running high.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa. Police come to close the beach.
More police coming to clear the beach.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa. SAPS Police Diving Unit
Making a plan, just before they told everyone it was closed.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.
The rest of the officials meet before euthanizing.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.  Arguing with an official.
Arguing once the man in the blue told them to leave.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.  Arguing with an official.
More fighting, pointing at the whale in the sand.

Whales beach in Kommetjie, Cape Town, South Africa.  Last effort to save one of the whales.
Last ditch effort for this one. Calling people to help push.

I asked a police officer, he said, "The beach is officially closed." To me, this sounded like, "Boy, we really screwed this up big time, and since we're police, we are taking control of this scene and telling you to leave so we can shoot them all." It probably also meant, "We've been told that all that the rescue efforts have failed, and it's too late". Maybe both. I'm no expert, but the whales weren't very large, and I've seen how Cape Town responds to fires, with helicopters galore, and I also know how they can really screw things up as well. It seems to me that they weren't prepared, even the ones that were tasked with marine protection. There should have been boats involved, there should have been either trained professionals, more instruction, or no request for the public to come help. But... there wasn't, and the situation was regrettable. So, we complied and left.

I read another account from a volunteer online, and it seems things got very hectic after we left. Many volunteers tried desperately to free the remaining whales as the police started clearing the beach. Shortly thereafter, a police gunman with a rife, flanked by other officials, moved from whale to whale and put a bullet into each one to euthanize it. It was very sad to hear, and frustrating at how insane things got. Volunteers were still there, and officials are now recommending people that were disturbed by what happened to seek counselling. Should have thought of that before you didn't clear the beach and started killing whales.

All of this happened during the day. In the evening, I spent a lot of time online with friends trying to figure out all the questions I had from the day. Can whale rescue be successful? What was happening physiologically to them on the beach? How should we have been taking care of them? What could have been done better? Why did they beach all at once? Is it common?

First and foremost, pilot whales seem to beach pretty often. A few years ago Australia saw 140 beach at once on their shores, and were somewhat successful getting about 40 back out. I doubt very much that it was the result of navy sonar operations or global warming. In fact, the first recorded stranding in South Africa happened on the same beach in 1928, with 108 whales coming ashore. In that instance, whales that were towed deeper also rebeached, so even their behavior has happened before. Beachings have happened in other places of the world and other parts of South Africa since. So... pilot whales have a tendency to do this.

Why do they beach? No definitive cause has been identified, but the best guess is that they follow a leader onto the beach. These ones are also called false killer whales, since they are smaller relatives and travel in pods of many dozens, following a leader. If she is ill, confused, dying, or whatever else and heads for shore, they follow. Sorry to say it, but these whales may have received a Darwin Award on Saturday. The bottom line: these things happen, and a number of things could have been done differently. Beyond this, I've had lots of conversations and arguments with people about what could have been done, and I'm frankly tired of talking about it. The numbers are sketchy, and news reports keep changing on how many lived, beached, and died. It seems now that 44 were euthanized on the beach, and another ten or so died during rescue attempts. They probably didn't have a very good chance of survival once they came ashore in the first place.

I'd like to focus on the time I actually spent with them, rather than the outcome though. It was a very unique experience to sit with a whale. I sat with this one outside of the context of an aquarium, or some type of zoo... but rather in the wild, sitting with it, making my best guesses as how to support it and keep it well. I am glad I was at least able to help try.

It ended up becoming international news. Here are some articles: BBC News UK | Telegraph | Reuters | Associated Press
All photographs © Shaun Aukland


  1. I would be awestruck at the sight of so many whales, and confused as to what the "best guess" is to take care of them. Great work Shaun, both on the beach and on this post. : )

  2. From what I understand many of these whales had previously beached themselves further down the coast and a number of whales were seen dead in the water. This suggests that while the actual beaching would have precipitated their decline rapidly, they, for some reason, had no sense of location and were in trouble regardless of their immediate position on the beach. The beaching was merely a symptom of the distress and not the cause. In any event, death by bullet is surely more preferable than a slow lingering burn on the beach. The decision was taken by SANSR.

  3. Such a refreshing take on a sad situation. You put foward an argument for and against both sides and that sits well with me.

  4. Ohhh :( My comment didn't post. It was so fabulous, you can even ask ndrwhkrs what it said. It was pretty good....

  5. Well written Shaun. Seriously have a look into a career in media and writing. It was a very objective piece putting forward both sides to the story, both traumatic for all volunteers, authorities, sea rescue and public involved.

  6. humans are stupid.

  7. Thank you for these fine posts, Shaun. Yes, I'm back to lurking again. Been reading and keeping up with you all along. Wonderful, fascinating posts. I agree with above comment: you really should look into media, reporting, writing - the world needs inspiring writers like you. It's a wonderful gift that should not go unshared. Love from YGM

  8. Hi Shaunie,
    Love your story,I felt every emotion you were going through. I felt like I was their, I felt fear, sadness, hope, confusion, courage and faith this world and people are good. Hopeless when it wasn't working. Frustration for no workable solution! What an experience for you and you feel so so much. You truly live in the moment and are so aware and connected to your environment!love you and am so proud that you are one of the first to be helpful always.

  9. Hello, what a great and detailed post. I also wrote a blog on it with pictures and questions. I posted a blog with my experiences, questions and pictures. But will add here two thoughts: I tend to think of two approaches: either we let nature take its course and let the whales be - even if the beaching was caused by human causes. Or, we interfere and manage - which is what we tend to do. Then I see the questions: what will we manage for? For minimizing pain in the animals, or for trying to rescue individual animals as best we can for the sake of maintaining populations and species - even if the animals may be in pain for longer? I'm not sure what the population status is for False Killer Whales, but I here assume that it warrants great efforts for trying to save as many as possible individuals. Should our notion of pain in the animals then really have terminated the huge rescue operation? (And do we really know how much it is in pain? If we do, should we start shooting someone who just lost its arm)? Many volunteers and bystanders describe the rescue-operation as chaotic and mismanaged (see other posts in this blog, also see the Cape Times June 2, 2009, page 8). The authorities asked the rethorical question: "Would you not want to end an animal's suffering?". It does sound 'logic and the best option' to do so; who would say 'no'? Does 'humanely euthanising' (or 'shooting in the brain') justify ending the rescue operation? What about focusing on the rescue solution, such as waiting for high tide, providing straps, more blankets and coaching? Preventing pain in animals doesn't seem to be a pure argument for ending what we tend to manage for: saving populations and species. Unless perhaps there are enough False Killer Whales anyway, and so only their comfort is what counts to us. In that case, why have considered rescueing beached animals in the first place? More thoughts, questions and pictures on my blog - please share your viewpoints.

  10. Shaun, I think the comment was something like this: Shaunski, I'm glad you tried to save the whales. Next time maybe you can get out your fork lift and move them all back to the ocean. Or, if they do end up dying you could blow them up like in Reno 911 Miami. Just kidding. Have fun in Moz.

  11. Sophia van CollerJune 5, 2009 at 2:25 PM

    Good job Shaun. We could have had much more success had the officials told us about the amount of time you actually have to spend in the shallow water, righting the whales, as they need to find their equilibrium again. It can take quite a while, before they are stabilised. In the morning, even when MCM was on the beach, we were trying to get them back in the water too fast and with no plan. As I have read in Australian documentation on the internet, due to their blood shift, they are unbalanced and will just topple over until the bloodflow returns to normal. We did do it wrong in the beginning, but we did not know otherwise, we were not the experts. The pod had to be stabilised together, the front ones being the large males or females and taken to deeper water. Possibly with jet skis or large zodiacs that can handle the swell conditions. The swell had dropped right down in the afternoon, so it could have been possible. Then when the smaller ones were stabilised and close, by using other craft to herd them deeper to the older ones, theoretically they will follow to the deep waters. This is just what I have read from documents in the last three days on the internet of other governments. But dont be too harsh on yourself. The volunteers gave it their all, even if we had no clue. I'm trying to get MCM to come up with a proper plan for next time, if such a disaster ever hits our shores again, anywhere in South africa.
    All the best,
    Sophia van Coller

  12. Shaun... I think you are a very talented writer and I love the way you told your story and your logic when asking some very difficult questions. I try not to speculate because I was not there. Through your words I have a great understanding of what actually happened. Thank you so much for sharing.

  13. Just to comment on Deirdre's thoughts: Are there enough False Killer whales? Ok, where do I start? I am dive instructor and underwater photographer, with over 6000 scuba dives around the world. Also freediver for SA. So basically if you stick your head under the water and pay close attention to how fish species of ALL shapes and sizes are dwindling, how they're still dynamiting on coral reefs all over south east asia and rest of the globe. Most of my beloved dive spots are now graveyards of bleached or blown up coral heads. Since diving in the Maldives only 6 years ago the manta rays and whale sharks have been hunted to small pockets. Turtles, sharks, rays, skinned, finned and buffed for ashtrays. Do I have to carry on or is everyone depressed enough? Folks, educate yourselves. The sea is depleted, there is so little left. So dont even waver, do what you can.
    A whale friend

  14. Hey guys, thanks for all the comments. I especially appreciate the compliments on my writing, I was just trying to give my perspective.

    Lyndsey, they have blown up whales here in South Africa. They did it to a beached sperm whale in Cape Town in like 2005. I can't imagine it ended well.

    In other news, Divestyle Magazine approached me, and excerpts of this post may be appearing in their next issue. Also, the Sea Shepherds (from Whale Wars) asked me to donate the high-res versions of my photos from this day. Man... I would LOVE to, if I wasn't paying out of the nose for every megabyte that crawls out of my computer.

    Skyrove Internet and I are really going to have some words soon. Perhaps with Paul Watson?

  15. Hi Shaun....well-written. I was one of the NSRI guys on the beach that sad day. I also have a blog where I posted my memories of what happened...it's a shame how many accounts of the same thing are out there, many from similar views, but all with the same message: that it should not happen again and we should be better prepared if it does. http://dmdad.blogspot.com/2009/06/whale-of-time-not-exactly.html

  16. Have to say I agree with the first Anonymous post - the whales had beached themselves earlier and this was the second attempt to move them. The first attempt was successful but the whales simply went further around the coast (to Kommetjie) and beached themselves again.

    Sea Shepherd members are borderline terrorists. They do all sorts of outrageous things just to get their message into the public sphere. Their message is good, but their means to an end is not. I would think twice about helping them again, Shaun.

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