Thank you to Scripps Newspaper, reporter and Facebook friend, Ginny Beagan, who contacted me encouraging me to write about this experience in my blog—giving me permission to use her photos.
Last Sunday, I had wanted to go to church, but there was a different lesson in store for me that day…
At 8:01, Steve Burton, the head of FAU’s Harbor Branch Marine Mammal Rescue Team, sent out a call to its trained volunteers: “A kogia (pygmy sperm whale) had beached itself at Stuart Beach, less than five minutes from where I live in Sewall’s Point. I texted that I would be there, and the morning took on that surreal experience that goes along with meeting on land, our deep water friends from the sea.
“Ed, let’s go!” I called to my husband down the stairwell. We put on warm clothes, grabbed every bucket in the house, and in silence, drove the jeep over the bridge on the other side of the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon.
Ed and I had been through whale stranding before, most memorably, in 2012. (I have been a trained volunteer with Harbor Branch since 2011.) (http://www.fau.edu/hboi/marine_mammals/)
In 2012, a call like the one this morning came in. Not one, but twenty-two pilot whales had beached themselves along Avalon Beach in north Ft Pierce. Like a war scene, their bodies flailing in the breaking waves, Harbor Branch, NOAA, St Lucie County Fire Rescue and police, the Florida Wildlife Commission, and concerned members of the public, did all they could to save these protected marine mammals. Five calves were saved; the rest did not make it off the beach being humanly euthanized, moved, and studied for disease giving clues to their stranding.
Apparently these creatures have such strong social bonds, they will follow their sick family leader to shore, even to their deaths. A bond that serves them in nature most of the time…..
The whale this day was a pygmy sperm whale, not a pilot whale, but both are deep divers and rare to see.
Within minutes Ed and I arrived: it was very windy, and the surf was kicked up. Florida Wildlife Commission officers, and Martin County fire rescue and lifeguards were at the scene waiting for Harbor Branch, NOAA and a veterinarian to arrive. (People come as far as Vero and Boca to assist in such rescues.)
On the beach, I nodded at the officers—–they saw my Harbor Branch shirt.
I immediately filled a bucket with ocean water and slowly poured it over the whale to keep its skin moist in the hot sun. The whale was about 10 or 12 feet long; female: a thousand or so pounds; with a pink belly, and grey-black “smooth as plastic” skin; her head was blunt and beautifully shaped—I remembered how I’d read that the US Government studied deep-sea whales to derive the shapes of World War II submarines….Her blow-hole was off centered on the top of her head, an adapted nostril; her eyes were low on her body and small; barely open…Originally, she was on her side, breathing heavily. These whales can dive more than 1000 feet.
I leaned down, slowly…
Looking in the eye of a whale is something that is a lesson in and of itself. They are intelligent, and look back at you, like a dog, or a person. They know you are there. I sensed no fear in this whale, only total exhaustion.
She had scrapes and abrasions all over her body from coming in the harsh surf. Usually these whales are seen alone or in groups of five or six in the deep ocean. Scientists don’t know for certain, but it is believed they dive over a thousand feet to catch squid and they even sequester the ink in their own bodies using it too as a way to escape and confuse predators…sometimes they just float like logs in the ocean, and as a boat approaches, they submerge. A lot is not known about them.
Over the next few minutes, Ed and I met some of the others already there. The press arrived. Throngs of people gathered.
The couple that had found the whale at 7AM, while walking the beach, the Sopkos, were visiting from Cleveland. He, a steelworker; she a caretaker. They were so interested and wanted to do all they could to help. Making a 911 call to save a whale was not what they had expected that morning…They stayed the entire time, helping in any way they could.
Once all of the authorities and the veterinarian had arrived, it was decided to take the whale into the Harbor Branch ambulance, but she was too uncomfortable, and would not be carried, so the work up was done right there on the beach. It took hours. The veterinarian was excellent– Dr Kilpatrick, from Vero. His compassion showed as he determined the whales’ vital signs. She was not well and her breathing had become stalled and labored. The vet explained that heart problems are commonly seen in these whales. This is being studied…
He also explained that, pygmy sperm whales do not have a good record of survival once beached. In a majority of instances when they have been put back out to sea, they beach again, and again, and again, sometimes with sharks waiting in the waves.
Their bodies, usually “weightless” in sea water, feel the full force of gravity once on land. Their internal organs are under tremendous pressure. The animals are literally collapsing under their own weight.
Another hour passed……..
During the scene, Chase Franco, 14, was next to me, a student at Jensen Beach High School. Chase is affiliated with the fire rescue team. They allowed him to take part.
Over time, all had been done that could be done for the ailing whale. The call was made to euthanize her to put her out of her agony.
On my knees, there next to Chase, whom I know from him being a bag boy at Publix… The tension was thick. Having been through this before in Ft Pierce that awful day, I braced myself.
Others took the position to hold the whale; long time marine mammal volunteer, Jim Moir, held her tail; he encouraged us to softly speak to the whale and warned us they sometimes fight.
I looked at Chase. Although he is an avid fisherman, this was different. To see him now faced with the whale’s impeding death was unsettling. We held tight.
“Help me.” I said, to myself….”Help me find something to say to this young person….”
Chase looked at me, his big blue eyes questioning…
I started speaking….
“Chase, as you know the whale is going to be euthanized. It is sick. This is always difficult. This is what I try to do and maybe you can do? Concentrate, give the whale part of your energy, and know you are receiving some of hers…think about all of those wonderful years under the sea, blue light, and friends… Happiness, hunting, and survival. She had a good life; now it’s time to let go….but she will be with you, always….”
Chase closed his eyes. He concentrated….
No one spoke….
The whale had not taken a breath for minutes; her eyes were closed in peaceful repose; she did not fight.
Chase finally looked at me, glassy blue eyes reflecting blue ocean and blue sky…He understood.
We carried the whale to the Harbor Branch ambulance. Some people fought back tears. It was another whale of a lesson…a lesson that only our friends from the sea can give…
Harbor Branch: (http://www.fau.edu/hboi/)