Number of stranded pilot whales holds to three

emoody@beaufortgazette.comDecember 10, 2012 

State officials scoured the Lowcountry coast by air late last week but did not find other stranded whales like the one that swam ashore and later died on Hunting Island.

The short-finned pilot whale that beached itself Thursday in the Fripp Inlet, between the Hunting Island pier and the bridge to Fripp Island, was one of three found stranded last week. Pilot whales also swam aground on Edisto Beach and the Story River on Fripp Island.

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources surveyed the waters between Fripp and Bulls Bay, near Charleston, on Friday but saw no other stranded animals.

However, three other pilot whales have been reported in the St. Helena Sound area, and more strandings are possible, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration biologist Wayne McFee.

"We're still on alert. They could come back up again; we don't know," said McFee, a mammal-stranding expert. "I'd give it a good week at least."

As of Monday, none of the necropsies, or animal autopsies, on the three whales had produced an explanation for their behavior. Scientists should have a better idea of what went wrong when pathology test results are available, but that could take weeks or even months, McFee said.

None of the three juvenile males had food in their stomachs, so it's likely they had not eaten in a while, McFee said. The Edisto Beach whale had signs of possible intestinal infection. The Hunting Island whale had some minor parasitism, and the Fripp Island whale was too decomposed to provide many answers.

Pilot whales are social mammals that usually live in groups of 20 to 200. The species is known for group strandings, in which one dies and others follow. That usually occurs in the same place, which makes these separated strandings unusual, McFee said.

"This area has a lot of interesting currents and inlets that could have separated them, and they get into these marsh situations and they aren't familiar with marsh and mud and that could have freaked them out," he said.

The last mass pilot whale stranding in South Carolina was in 1974, when about 14 died on the shore of Kiawah Island near Charleston, McFee said.

DNR and NOAA officials said people should not approach stranded whales, and pushing them back into the water will not likely prevent them from swimming ashore again and dying. Instead, those who spot stranded whales should call DNR at 800-922-5431.

Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/EyeonBeaufort.

Related content:

Pilot whale beaches, dies at Hunting Island, Dec. 6, 2012

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