Pilot whale stranding at Igoda, East London

Below is an account of four short-finned pilot whales which were stranded and rescued at Igoda as recorded by museum scientist Kevin Cole:

‘I received a call at 8:06 am from Siani Tinley of the East London Aquarium that four whales had beached at Igoda, west of East London.

Arriving at the site I found one adult pilot whale (of the genus Globicephala) stranded 700 m along the beach toward Gulu. Members of the public were in attendance keeping the whale cool and a gentleman on site reported he had unsuccessfully tried to rescue a calf which had beached itself further along the beach.

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East London Museum scientist Kevin Cole (with the green cap) and the largest of the four pilot whales stranded west of the Igoda River mouth (East London)

Siani Tinley from the Aquarium arrived to coordinate the rescue. Her support team headed to a rocky outcrop 1.2 km west of the Igoda River mouth where 2 more female Pilot Whales (one lactating) had beached. These whales averaged 3.6 m in length and weighing well in excess of a half a ton. I took blubber samples and notched the dorsal fins of these females for later identification.

We decided to try and rescue the larger whale on the beach first, while the Aquarium attended to the two females on the rocks. With the help of some very committed members of the public the larger of all the whales was successfully re-introduced to the sea by allowing it to enter the surf zone tail first and then re-orienteering its head seaward in deeper water.

The calf at the stage refused to break beyond the surf zone to deeper water and it was decided to keep it calm on the beach under the care of aquarium official Roche Henning. Meanwhile a rescue plan for all the whales was being considered. Siani Tinley elicited professional input from whale specialists in PE and Cape Town and I contacted Terry Taylor of Portnet for assistance. At this time we decided to drag the two females from the rocks to the beach – a distance of 400 m – so as to release all the animals simultaneously (calf included) to conform with the social behaviour of the animals.

Members of the public rallied together and arranged for a tractor and a tarpaulin (with slings) to drag the whales to the point of release. They are heartily thanked for thisprompt commitment. Terry Taylor of Portnet arrived with Harry van Gerven of the SAPS (providing much needed equipment, such as another tarpaulin) and Lionel Taylor and Donald Leibach of the SPCA also provided much needed assistance . An additional tarpaulin was now available to save time in getting both whales to the point of release on the beach. In a magnificent display of team work some very strong and committed public of all ages hoisted the whales onto the tarpaulin. The operation of moving them along the beach went smoothly and after much muscle power the whales were ready to be released.

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Members of East London community rally together to transport one of the pilot whales away from the rocks to a safer point of entry to the sea

I arranged three teams with Siani Tinley to work on getting the whales into the surf zone together by hauling them off the tarpaulin (tail first into the ocean) and then steering their heads into the surf once deeper water was reached.

The calf disappeared quickly after trying to suckle unsuccessfully on the non-lactating female. The other two adults swam rapidly and then in a short time unfortunately beached – one on the sand close to the point of departure and the other on the rocks close to the original stranding.

The real drama began when the animals had to be calmed and kept safe before further attempts were made to get them back to sea. A group of folk settled in with the whale on the beach and another group worked with the whale stranded close to the rocks. Many unsuccessful attempts were made to encourage the animals back to sea. The whale stranded at the rocks eventually moved beyond the break line and disappeared. The sun had already set and we were still trying to encourage the last female whale back to the ocean. A call was made not to euthanize until one last attempt was made at 19h30 and on the final push the whale headed off into the dark waters. Consideration was given to the fact that high tide would assist the whales over a sand bar close to shore. Siani Tinley maintained her priority of human safety throughout the operation and was visibly concerned by the fading light later and strong rip currents in the surf.

It was a tough day for all and everybody who assisted are most sincerely thanked by Siani and myself for a valiant effort in the interests of marine mammal conservation

I will be attending in international workshop in Brazil next month to deliver a presentation on the research and conservation of cetaceans in South Africa. The purpose of the workshop, convened by the International Whaling Commission, is to seek consensus from whale commissioners around the world on a proposal to establish a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary’.

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A female pilot whale is assisted by volunteers to keep her off the rocks before attempting to encourage her back to sea

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About East London Museum Science

Conservation Biologist East London Museum South Africa
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3 Responses to Pilot whale stranding at Igoda, East London

  1. desiree says:

    Hi Kevin
    Can you confirm that the largest of the four whales was found dead on the beach this morning?

    Thank you for the account 🙂

  2. Hi Desiree, yes, unfortunately the 4.06 m female pilot whale did not make it.
    We (Bayworld, Aquarium and Museum) have just completed a necropsy and found no visible signs of disease. Some of the teeth were very well worn though.

  3. Desiree says:

    Gosh that’s truly a pity but I do believe in nature knowing best. My husband was one of the volunteers there on Saturday and he said he is glad the 3 remaining “whales” survived 🙂

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