Whale standings have puzzled human observers since the time of Aristotle and probably before. Although whales have inhabited the waters of the planet for fifty million years or more, it is only in the last ten years or so that we have begun to understand how to help stranded animals in a practical way. The dawn of understanding happened in New South Wales, as we shall see.
Until 1985 a herd of stranded whales was pretty much doomed. Today, it’s not unusual in Australia for eighty percent or more to be saved. This article by Bill Fulton was first published in the National Parks Journal, December 1996.
Why Do They Strand?
Herd stranders are usually an open water species of whale, migratory and relatively unaccustomed to the hazards of inshore waters. In one scenario, rather like a car crash, several things go wrong at once. A lunge for a squid close to shore may coincide with a large wave, for example, leaving a whale grounded. Other animals in the herd progressively go to its aid.
These pelagic whales are born in the herd, live in the herd, and die in the herd. Physically and emotionally they cannot survive away from the herd, and it is natural that they go to the assistance of a separated animal. They in turn are caught in the surf, and soon many animals are on the beach. It is not suicide.
At herd strandings, hundreds of whales may beach themselves at once. Animals pushed back out through the surf by concerned individuals will soon return to shore, in much worse condition. The animals are just unable to swim straight because of cramp, stress and shock. They have no option but to strand again. Their experience is like a severe car crash. We don’t put a car driver back at the wheel right after a crash and tell him to drive home.
Time is of the essence in saving the lives of stranded whales. Before getting involved in the care of individual animals, it’s critical to alert trained rescuers at the earliest moment. You can call ORRCA’s 24-hour Hotline at (02) 9415 3333, or the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
It is just so important not to push animals back to sea. Unfortunately many deaths are caused in this way by people who only mean well.
Emotions will run high, and you may need bring out the car crash analogy to dissuade people who are bent on immediate action.
Experts will soon be on the scene to determine the treatment needed before a successful release will be possible.
Safety: For People and Whales
Meanwhile, there is lot you can do to save lives and alleviate suffering. Whales, being mammals, breathe air – but only through blowholes on top of the head. So it’s important to get the animals upright, keeping clear of the tail at all times for safety.
Pectoral flippers are fragile and must not be used as handles. You should not attempt to remove animals from the water, without training it’s likely to do more harm than good.
Animals already on dry land are at severe risk of death through overheating. They need shade and plenty of water poured gently on the main heat transfer areas (tail, pectoral flippers and dorsal fin). Cotton sheets can be used to cover the back by day, it’s important not to cover the head or the heat transfer areas. Crowds should be kept at a distance, with disturbances at a minimum.
In 1985, sixty-two false killer whales stranded at Crowdy Head on the north coast of New South Wales. Judging by previous strandings around the world, the prognosis was grim. Whales were being dashed to death on the rocks by surf action and conditions for rescuers were appalling.
The hero at this rescue was a local resident, one of the first on the scene. He spent many hours trying to hold his whale upright, blowhole above the water, as directed by the Service. But he was losing the battle, and couldn’t keep upright himself. Taking matters into his own hands, he decided to take his animal on the back of a truck to the sheltered fishing port on the other side of the headland a kilometre away, where he would nurse it back to health over hours or days.
This was so successful that the order was given to transport all surviving animals to the port, and 33 whales were saved. No longer would stranded animals be doomed to die.
Every stranding is very different from the rest, so there is no cookbook approach to whale rescue. No one has all the answers, and we learn a lot every time.
What is useful is principles. Principles can be adapted to any situation. As you can guess, one principle is to remove whales from the surf zone and stabilise their condition in calm water before release of the herd. The herd should be released together, as they are an integral social unit.
The other paramount principle is to minimise stress of all kinds. Accumulated stresses kill. Overheating, sunburn, social stresses (e.g. separation of family units), machinery, shouting, the press of too many people, bright lights in the eyes, helicopters, media flashbulbs, immersion in water of different salinity or temperature, long-distance transport, unnecessary relocation around the beach or exposure to a succession of different environments – infinite care must be taken to avoid these killers.
Whales and the Law
Whales are protected by a variety of Federal and State legislation which forbids harassment or interference of any kind. This protection also applies to bones and other remains of dead animals. In New South Wales there are minimum approach distances for water craft such as boats and surfboards (100m, or 200m for calves), swimmers and divers (30m), and helicopters (300m).
These restrictions do not impede rescuers who work under Service direction, and in practice they do not hinder members of the public who give first aid until trained rescuers arrive.
The Future for Whales
Whales face severe loss of habitat, loss of food sources, destruction on a massive scale through the impact of human civilisation, and inhumane exploitation for mere human entertainment. Huge commercial interests are at play in many countries including Australia. We can only hope that 50 million years of evolution is not going to be lost.