You’d be forgiven for assuming that with the word ‘pilot’ in their name, these whales in particular would be able to navigate well enough to avoid getting stranded on shore. These pilot whales, however, begged to differ when roughly one hundred of them (unintentionally) found themselves stranded off the Panadura coast in Sri Lanka on the 2nd of November 2020.
Whale strandings, or cetacean strandings, have occurred since before recorded history, and happen when whales and dolphins wind up stranded on dry land (usually a beach). Beached or stranded whales and dolphins unfortunately, but usually die, either due to;
- collapsing under their own weight, or
- drowning when high tide covers their blow hole.
Studies have been conducted to understand WHY these strandings take place- with theories ranging from;
- inadvertently following prey to shore while hunting; to
- being mistakenly led to shore by an errant navigator,given the highly social nature of pilot whales .
As of yet, however there is no particularly clear answer. Thankfully, most strandings which occur in recent times result in coordinated rescue efforts to save the affected cetaceans- with this latest incident as prime example.
In an unexpected turn of events (for all mammals involved) on the 2nd of November, a pod of short-finned pilot whales were found washed ashore at Panadura (about 25 kilometres south of the capital of Colombo). The total number of whales, numbering a hundred and twenty, contributed to the largest ever mass stranding of whales on the island.
“It is very unusual for such a large number to reach our shores. We think this is similar to the mass stranding in Tasmania in September.” said the Chief of Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority, Dharshani Lahandapura. The Tasmania Stranding was one of the largest strandings ever globally since 1996, with 110 out of the 470 stranded whales rescued.
The locals were equally baffled by the stranding;
“I was fishing when I saw a dark patch and about 100 came ashore. We’ve pushed as many as we can back to sea. I don’t know why this has happened. It’s never happened before. This is the first time I’ve seen it,” – Upul Ranjith, a local fisherman*
Updates by local news portals and via Instagram by Dr Asha De Vos, a notable Sri Lankan Marine Biologist and founder and director of Sri Lanka’s first Marine Conservation Research and Education organisation, Oceanswell, revealed that the whales had washed up some time in the afternoon. The news of the stranding hitting the local news outlets later that same evening. Following an overnight rescue operation, conducted by the Sri Lankan Navy and coastguard, as well as a group of locals, nearly all the stranded whales were rescued.
Watch the BBC video on some of the initial rescue efforts by the local residents of Panadura.
The successful rescue was structured in two-parts between the local residents in the shallows and the authorities taking over in deeper waters. On being notified that the whales breathed through their blow holes, focus was on keeping the stranded whales upright and their air holes unblocked. In addition to this, the locals aiding the rescue efforts worked to have the whales turned upright against crashing waves to guide them past the surf and into deeper waters.
De Vos described this herculean effort as pushing these mammoth creatures, which can measure 3 to 5.5 METRES long and weighed at least 1000-3000 kg each, past nature’s equivalent of a treadmill – strong tidal waves which kept pushing those that got afloat back to shore. This resulted in a restarting of the entire process of getting the whales afloat once again, fatiguing both men and whales alike. Thankfully, the whales were eventually floated out to deeper water, where they were then towed out still further to safety by the Sri Lankan Navy’s smaller inshore pilot craft.
Asha De Vos took to social media to thank all coordinated efforts of the rescue teams, praising their endurance and focus in rescuing the stranded whales. In her Instagram post detailing the updates of the rescue efforts, De Vos remarked – “These people cared less about their own safety in the crashing surf than the safety of these animals in a very difficult time in our planet’s history.”
View this post on Instagram
Update 4 – Pilot whale mass stranding, Panadura: I am writing this to respond to a number of tweets and posts I saw this morning. Many on social media were commenting on how the people on the ground were mishandling the whales. It is important to note that they were not. If they looked like they were wrestling the animals it is because they were doing everything in their power to manage animals that were between 3-5.5 m (10-18 feet), weighing in at 1000-3000 kg. The animals were fatigued and stressed, they were smashing their tails around – which was risky for the people in the water. It was difficult for the men (who were also fatigued) to turn them upright against the crashing waves, to direct them into the surf and to move them beyond their own height of water. If you’ve never been in this situation, please don’t be quick to judge. Once I explained that the whales breathe from their blowholes that are located at the tops of their heads, and that they need to ensure the airways remained unblocked, they tried their level best to keep the animals upright – but it was hard. The waves kept tossing the animals and the people. They were working in darkness, apart from the lights of a bunch of 4×4 vehicles who turned up to help. The moon was behind clouds so we had no real natural light to work with. These people cared less about their own safety in the crashing surf than the safety of these animals, in a very difficult time in our planet’s history. The whales were stuck in a treadmill. They would be guided past some of the crashing waves, but they were weakening and the waves would push them back. Then the process would start again. I got in the water to help after I had done what I could to guide and explain what needed to happen. Everyone was receptive to the information and were happy to learn which means we will be better prepared next time. Everyone was tired. We lost one animal on my watch – I was monitoring its blow hole and I had the misfortune of declaring it dead. We are hopeful that the others that were taken out with the help of humans and eventually jet skis, found the rest of their pod and are now in safety. I will tell you when I know.
Want to know more about whale strandings? Check out De Vos’s Instagram post below.
View this post on Instagram
#Repost from @oceanswellorg Curious about the science behind mass whale stranding events? Swipe through to learn why the pilot whale mass stranding event we just experienced is considered a natural event based on the best available science (done by the best available and most experienced scientists) from across the globe. Want to learn more? Check out the list of references on the last slide, or contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org for the reading list. If you enjoy learning about the science of the ocean in fun and engaging ways, follow myself and my team @oceanswellorg
And for those of you wondering, yes, this story does have a happy ending. Nearly all of the stranded whales (barring two) were rescued, and hauled back to the safe (well, relatively speaking) embrace of the sea, where they would hopefully reunite with their pod. In the meantime, kudos and a colossal round of applause to the rescuers, who, by dint of their efforts, showed us all how much living beings care for one another, no matter how difficult the times.
Well done, guys!