At least a dozen short-finned pilot whales have repeatedly beached themselves on St. Simons Island along the Georgia barrier on Tuesday evening.
Meanwhile, an estimated 20 to 50 whales were also rescued after hours, according to Georgia Department of Natural Resources in a statement. Volunteers and wildlife authorities helped in pushing the animals out to the sea, but as of Wednesday morning, three from the pod had died.
“The water was full of immense black fins and bodies rolling in the surf; these were huge animals,” David Steen, research ecologist at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center who participated in the rescue, told Motherboard in an interview.
The Georgia Sea Turtle Center, which is a rescue and research facility that focuses on sea turtles, was asked to help other state and federal agencies, like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Steen added that they tried to focus on the whales very close to the shore, as to signal the other whales that must have been roughly 300 feet out not to come any closer. However, it seemed like others did not like to swim out.
“It became gradually more apparent that [one whale] was probably not going to be swimming out to rejoin the pod and that leaves few options,” Steen said. “It did get a little heavy for me because it was making noises and I was imagining that it was communicating to the rest of the pod, which seemed to be waiting just offshore.”
According to a spokesperson from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, “stranding is a natural occurrence.” The only thing volunteers and experts could do is to help the animals return to sea.
It is still not clear why whales do this, but there are some theories of why they do. It is possible that one confused whale can lead its entire pod astray. Some necropsy reports also suggest that parasites and injuries from seismic activities can confuse or puzzle pilot whales, losing its ability to navigate through its surroundings.