Pilot whales stranded on Chatham sandbar, IFAW is working to save them

CHATHAM – Of five pilot whales stranded off Chatham on Saturday, two escaped the harbour, two died and one continues to be monitored as it swims into the harbour.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare responded to several calls about the whales on its stranding hotline on Saturday afternoon June 11, leading to a weekend-long rescue mission to treat and refloat the animals as quickly as possible. The whales were located opposite the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge on a sandbar in Chatham Harbor.

This is usually how IFAW is alerted to wildlife strandings, said Brian Sharp, director of IFAW’s Marine Mammal Rescue & Research. As soon as they received the call, a volunteer responder in Chatham confirmed the scene and gathered details of the situation for the incoming team.

IFAW worked closely with the Harbor Master’s office, which established a security buffer zone in the middle of the port, as well as with US Fish and Wildlife, which provided an additional vessel to carry the equipment needed to work on whales.

The work of the three organizations has enabled IFAW to begin rapidly cooling the body temperature of whales and reducing their stress and shock from being stranded.

There were three male whales, one female and one whose sex was unknown, said Stacey Hedman, IFAW’s communications director. They ranged in length from 11.5 feet to 16.5 feet. The two largest were probably adults and the other three were sub-adults.

From the archives:Cape Town study offers hope for dolphins

“Two animals came out on Saturday, two animals ended up stranded after we bailed out, we worked until sunset trying to free these animals but were unsuccessful,” Sharp said.

One of the five whales died from what Sharp said he assumed was stress and shock as the animals began to bail out as the sun set on Saturday. IFAW staff, veterinarian and volunteers remained on site until around 9 p.m. to ensure the whales were in the best possible position to exit the harbor overnight.

Five pilot whales stranded in Chatham over the weekend have received help from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Harbor Master's Office and US Fish and Wildlife.

On Sunday, two whales remained in port when IFAW received another call.

“We received another report in our hotline that one of these animals had become stranded and so the team went out to assess the animal and unfortunately his condition had deteriorated markedly so the team carried out euthanasia on the ground to end the suffering of this animal,” Sharp said.

The euthanized whale was showing the effects of stress and shock, as it had repeatedly stranded and re-stranded for more than 24 hours. A necropsy, or autopsy on the euthanized whale, will be performed on Wednesday.

From the archives:More help for strandings at the other end of Cape

“This type of research can help us understand any potential reason for them being stranded, but the ever-changing slope and sandbars (are a) likely cause in this area,” Hedman said. “If an animal was previously sick, it could have potentially dragged the group down.”

IFAW is still monitoring the situation as a pilot whale continues to swim into the harbor. Whether the animal leaves the harbor alone will determine IFAW’s next step.

A rescue and research team from the International Fund for Animal Welfare spent the weekend rescuing five stranded pilot whales in Chatham.

Short-finned pilot whales have stranded in the Cape before, but Sharp considers it rare in that area. He identified these animals as most likely long-finned pilot whales, which are often seen offshore near Cape Town by NOAA aerial surveys. Problems tend to arise when pilot whales decide to come offshore where they are most likely to be stranded on the ever-changing sandbars.

Earlier this year:Seven stranded dolphins rescued in Wellfleet, released on Provincetown beach

“The challenge is when these animals come close to shore for whatever reason, whether it’s feeding, swimming or being disoriented, and then suddenly find themselves inside the sandbars at the outside of Chatham,” Sharp said. “And that’s part of what we think happened in this case.

“Part of the reason the stranding team formed in Cape Town was because of the pilot whale strandings,” Sharp added. “That has changed over time, and now we see more common dolphins than pilot whales, but pilot whales are still stranding on the cape.”

The International Fund for Animal Welfare has responded to a report of five pilot whales stranded off Chatham on Saturday June 11.

Changes to Chatham Inlet, such as its width, also make it a place where animals can wash ashore and difficult for humans to access, Sharp said. It is essential for anyone who sees a stranded animal to call the stranding hotline and stay away from the situation, he added.

The IFAW Stranding hotline can be reached at 508-743-9548.

Ella Adams is a news intern for the Cape Cod Times.