Untamed Lowcountry

2nd whale in a month found beached on Hilton Head. This one was still alive

Video | Beached Whales near Apache Pier

Two Pygmy Sperm whales, an adult cow and her calf, beached themselves north of the Apache Pier in 2015. The cow died but officials, marine biologists, and veterinarians worked to save the calf taking it to Ark Animal Hospital.
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Two Pygmy Sperm whales, an adult cow and her calf, beached themselves north of the Apache Pier in 2015. The cow died but officials, marine biologists, and veterinarians worked to save the calf taking it to Ark Animal Hospital.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said tourists found the whale on the beach. The story has been corrected.

For the second time in less than a month, a pygmy sperm whale washed up on a Hilton Head Island beach.

A Hilton Head resident walking his dog before sunrise found the animal and called 911 on Sunday, and Bluffton-based marine biologist Amber Kuehn was dispatched to the scene near Burke’s Beach.

Kuehn said the 10-foot female whale was still alive when she got there.

“I sat with it a couple hours,” Kuehn said.

She said the whale had lesions on its body and looked as though it had been bitten by small sharks.

Cause of death

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A 10-foot pygmy sperm whale was found near Burke’s Beach on Hilton Head Island on Sunday. Shore Beach Service Facebook

Kuehn performed a necropsy and sent tissue samples the NOAA lab in Charleston for testing. It could be months before the results are available, however. The lab is currently closed because of the federal government shutdown and has a backlog of cases.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers will look for the presence of viruses and determine whether plastics may have played a role in the whale’s death.

“In this case, I think it was an older female because its teeth were worn down,” Kuehn said. “There’s a possibility that it just died of old age.”

Buried on the beach

Photos posted by the island’s Shore Beach Service on Sunday show the whale on the sand and being buried on the beach.

Pygmy sperm whales generally swim alone and rarely approach the water’s surface or boats, according to NOAA. The whales typically live to 23 years old and eat squid, octopi, fish, crabs and shrimp. An average pygmy sperm whale can dive up to 1,000 feet in search of food, according to NOAA.

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Shore Beach Service Facebook

In late December, an 11-foot adult male pygmy sperm whale washed up on Mitchelville Beach near Hilton Head Plantation. In that case, the whale was badly decomposed.

Kuehn said pygmy sperm whale beachings are uncommon but not unheard of on Hilton Head Island.

“I usually deal with one or two pygmy sperm whales a year on our shores,” she previously told The Island Packet.

What to do if you find a beached animal

Kuehn said onlookers should never touch a beached marine mammal because it could have a contagious illness.

Plus, she said, dragging an animal back into the water might be just the opposite of what it wants.

“A lot of strandings will be on purpose,” she said, explaining that weak animals may be choosing to die in a place where they won’t be eaten by sharks and other scavengers.

“There are federal laws that prohibit you interacting with it even it is dead,” Kuehn said.

Instead, anyone who finds a stranded animal on the beach should call South Carolina Department of Natural Resources hotline immediately at 800-922-5431.

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Lisa Wilson is a breaking news reporter for The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. The 25-year newsroom veteran has worked for papers in Louisiana and Mississippi and is happy to call the Lowcountry home.


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