Pilot whale beaches, dies at Hunting Island

emoody@beaufortgazette.comDecember 6, 2012 

In the end, there was nothing to do but handle the body gently.

A crane arm extended slowly over the Hunting Island marsh at the Fripp Island Bridge on Thursday evening.

Workers slipped the rope over the 13-foot pilot whale's tail and gave the signal.

The glistening black animal slowly rose from the marsh, it's huge body spinning slowly clockwise as the crane eased it up and over the bridge, before carefully lowering it into a trailer for a final journey to Charleston.

The young whale was one of several that beached themselves on Lowcountry shores over the past two days, and researchers are seeking clues to what went wrong.

"The more we know about it, then we can try to piece the puzzle together as to why these animals might have stranded," Wayne McFee, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration marine biologist, said.

The whale will be examined for signs of infection, illness or other issues that could have lead to the stranding, which are reportedly occurring along the coast from Beaufort to Charleston.

"Pilot whales are known for mass strandings, so if you get one, generally the whole crowd is coming," S.C. Department of Natural Resources veterinarian Al Segars said.

SIGNS OF TROUBLE

The first sign of trouble came Tuesday when a 15-foot whale washed up on the shores of Edisto Beach, Segars said. It died quickly.

The necropsy, or animal autopsy, showed the animal had signs of an intestinal infection but it was not clear if that caused the beaching behavior.

McFee said officials will have a better idea of what occurred after the results of pathology tests come in. Those results could be weeks to months away, he said.

The NOAA is heading up the investigation and was assisted on Hunting Island by volunteers, state park rangers and DNR.

Overall, three deaths have been confirmed and several others reported as of Thursday, McFee said.

The recent strandings are unusual because the whales typically go ashore in the same place and are not separated by miles, McFee said. The whales migrate through the area, but typically stay 10 to 20 miles offshore, McFee said. The animal who died on Hunting island was a short-finned pilot whale, which has a more southern range than long-finned pilot whales, he said.

The last mass pilot whale stranding in South Carolina was in 1974, when about 14 whales died on the shore of Kiawah Island near Charleston, he said. He did not know what caused those strandings.

WHAT TO DO

People should resist the natural urge to help the animals.

Do not approach stranded whales, McFee said. Instead, residents should call 1-800-922-5431 to report the animals to DNR officials.

"When they're thrashing around in the surf, you don't want to be in the way because they can do some damage to you," McFee said. "Pushing them back out to sea is not going to do anything besides causing them to strand somewhere else."

Segars agreed.

"If we drag him out, his coming right back in," he said before the Hunting Island whale died. "We know that with 100 percent certainly. So there's no reason for us to stress him out and drag him out when we know he's coming right back."

Segars said there is little to do beyond helping the animals die humanely. If the Hunting Island whale had not died naturally, Segars said it would have been given a injection in the heart.

Whit Suber of Fripp Island saw the whale swimming around Fripp Inlet on Thursday morning and thought it was odd because the water there is pretty shallow.

When the whale swam up the rocky marsh, Suber, who was on the bridge with his daughter Sarah, 13, knew something was definitely wrong.

"We did think about getting in and pushing it," he said. "We chose not to for a couple of reasons. It seemed rather benign, but like (Segars) pointed out, it's a large animal, maybe 2,000 lbs. It could really hurt you."

He stood with his daughter as the whale was removed Thursday evening.

It's sad," he said, "but, you know, nothing lives forever."

Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/EyeonBeaufort.

Related content:

Whale stranded off of Fripp Island, April 5, 2003,

Whales, Aug. 3, 2002

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