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.
It was like triage. Whales all over.
The towel lady. That's just what I called her, though.
They were getting ready to turn the whale upright.
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.
Keeping this one comfortable. Note the water bucket.
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.
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.
A few volunteers swimming with one of the pilot whales.
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.
I think this is the one we were sitting with.
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.
What to do?
This one was fighting quiet furiously once it was in the water.
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.
More police coming to clear the beach.
Making a plan, just before they told everyone it was closed.
The rest of the officials meet before euthanizing.
Arguing once the man in the blue told them to leave.
More fighting, pointing at the whale in the sand.
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