The Desperate Bid to Rescue 10 Stranded Sperm Whales

Fagjun | Published 2017-11-18 16:31

Rescuing one sperm whale, which can weigh 35,000 to 57,000 kilograms, is already quite the challenge. So how do you rescue 10 of the creatures, all of which had been stranded on an Indonesian beach?

Nine of the 10 stranded whales [Photo by Chaideer Mahyuddin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images]



The answer to this is by putting together a veritable army of trained volunteers with the right equipment, but it also goes beyond that. Rescuing a whale needs to take place successfully within a tight timeframe. A beached whale can only survive out of the water for a day or two before dying of exposure. Their organs can also collapse under their weight once the whales are out of the water and they start to be affected by gravity on land. Sunburn and dehydration are also possibilities.


Thus, rescuing the beached sperm whales was a race against time. The rescuers worked round the clock, well into the night and into the next morning to make sure that the whales survive and make it safely back to the sea. However, while they achieved some successes, they also had some heavy losses.

How to Save 10 Beached Whales

Photo by Chaideer Mahyuddin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images



A marine mammal conservation group based in Indonesia named Strandings Indonesia had been monitoring the rescue and posting frequent updates on social media. According to the group, the rescuers were equipped with tarpaulins, ropes, nets, and boats in the coordinated rescue of the 10 stranded whales. WWF Indonesia also released drone footage of a web of ropes and rescuers struggling to push and pull the whales out of the shore and into the water.


By midnight, five of the beached whales were rescued. A few more hours later, the rescuers were able to push two more back into the water. Sadly, when morning came, three of the remaining whales were pronounced dead. Meanwhile, one whale that had been returned to the sea earlier floated back to the shore and died as well.


Photo by WWF Indonesia



It’s still unclear why the whales got stranded in shallow waters in the first place. Sperm whales are the largest of the toothed whale species, and as such, they usually don’t venture in shallower waters. They mostly swim in waters deeper than 984 feet deep, but they prefer to swim in waters twice that depth.


Rescuers on the ground say that people had swarmed the area as they were preparing to take samples from the deceased whales. "Before we could get our expert to conduct necropsies on the four carcasses, the situation on the ground was getting out of hand as masses started to swarm the area," said Aryo Tjiptohandono of WWF Indonesia. Without a detailed examination of the whale carcasses, it may difficult to figure out what caused the stranding.

Whales That Lose Their Way

People crowd around the rescuers [Photo by WWF Indonesia]



However, there are already some ideas and guesses as to what led the whales to shore. It’s possible that the whales got lost, or they may have followed their leader into shallow waters.


"Usually, sperm whales will avoid going into deep water if they're sick,” said Sapto Aji Prabowo, head of Aceh’s nature conservation agency. “Two of them were sick. So, we assume the leaders were sick and the others automatically followed them to the beach." One of the whales also had wounds that look like they were inflicted by coral reefs.


Other suggestions also include the possibility that the stranding was caused by sonar or acoustic interference. It’s possible that large sea vessels may have disrupted communication between the whales, leading them to swim to shallow waters. An official investigation into the matter will likely come up with some answers.


Sometimes, however, we won’t find an explanation.

Hey! Where are you going?? Subscribe!

Get weekly science updates in your inbox!