By William D. Romey
The first ones swam up onto the beaches near Eastham at about eleven in the morning, sleek, shiny black pilot whales ten to twelve feet long and weighing half a ton or more. A few newborn calves in the pod swam along beside their mothers. A storm blew ferociously and the new-moon tide rose higher and higher. More than fifty whales lay stranded on the beaches from Sandwich to Eastham. The tide ebbed out from under them.
The stranding of pilot whales happens every couple of years in Cape Cod Bay. No one knows quite why. One theory holds that groups of whales migrating southward along the New England shore swim down into Cape Cod Bay and once there, they get trapped in shallow water. In bad weather, going into a panic, the whales rush toward the shore, perhaps hoping for some exit through the marshes and estuaries in Eastham or Wellfleet, the most common locations of the strandings. Another theory suggests parasites in the whales "navigational organs" may disorient them. A fourth notion holds that "leaders" of the pods may develop problems, and that the other members of the pods may simply follow them blindly.
Before the save-the-whales craze began a few years ago, fishermen seeing "black-fish" fins out in the bay used to herd the pods together and purposely drive the whales ashore. There, after removing the small sack of oil in the whales’ heads, the fishermen left the carcasses on the beach to rot. To hear the old-timers tell it, it got pretty rank! Today, everyone rushes to shove the animals back out to sea if possible or to find other-strategies for rescuing them.
On the day of the strandings, groups from the New England Aquarium's Mammal Rescue Team and Provincetown's Center for Coastal Studies were on their way to Eastham, and so were other rescue teams. Throughout the afternoon and ensuing night, wet-suit-clad people plunged into the forty-five-degree surf, trying to turn the whales back. Some of the animals successfully returned to the water but, unfortunately that was not true for many of them. When possible, would-be rescuers dug little cavities around the whales. People tried to roll the whales into upright positions to keep them from suffocating. Rescuers kept the skins of the animals wet by splashing them or draping wet cloths over them.
We went out to First Encounter Beach to have a look at what was going on. A whale stranded in the upper end of the marsh was still alive and receiving attention from a group of people. From the parking lot, we headed southward along the shore toward a shiny black lump surrounded by people. It was a dead pilot whale. Its skin had the texture of perfectly smooth, shiny, black rubber. A young woman from the Eastham Natural Resources Department blocked our way with her pickup truck as live whales in that area were receiving the ministrations of the professional whale rescuers and approved volunteers who had previously signed up to help. No sight-seers, please!
After standing around as inconspicuously as possible for a while, we gradually began to work our way beyond the barriers. Our cameras, sketch pads, yellow slickers, and high boots must have made us look enough like other media representatives so that no one tried to stop us. A live female pilot whale at the edge of the Herring River was now back in the water. All night long, her crew of rescuers had kept her skin moist, petted her, and spoken reassuringly to her. The tide had now begun to rise again, and ten people, standing in the frigid water, held the whale, whom they had named "Halle", cradled in their arms so that they supported her in an upright position.
As we waited for the tide to rise further the rescue team brought up a huge sling-type stretcher on which to hoist Halle out of the water. A front-end loader from the Eastham Highway Department rumbled up behind us. Cables were rigged and attached to the stretcher. Halle's attendants floated her gently into the stretcher, and the loader operator began to raise the machine's big bucket. Slowly, Halle's stretcher strained and finally lifted clear of the water, with fifteen hundred pounds of whale pulling at the ropes. A microphone suspended on a pole above the whale recorded her wheezing and the conversation of the rescue team members, who continued to wet the whale's skin and talk reassuringly.
It took half an hour to figure out how to hoist the whale onto a truck. When they got her aboard, her tail stuck out far beyond the truck's tailgate. Once they'd settled her in, the procession to Salt Pond began.
The goal was to move Halle and the other recused whales from Cape Cod Bay to Salt Pond, an inlet from Nauset Harbor. The rescuers hoped that the group could then be herded out through Nauset Harbor and into the open ocean. The media were all there to record the event – a first for Cape Cod. Television cameramen had their tripods set up, and a photographer from the Associated Press had several cameras strung about his neck. Helicopters circled overhead.
Once there, Halle continued to receive intensive care from the rescue team. Crowds jammed the National Seashore Visitor's Center to see the whale. Everyone was hopeful that Halle was going to be fine. However, in spite of heroic efforts of many volunteers and experts in handling strandings, the outcome was not what was hoped for as the struggle was too much for Halle and she didn’t make it. Halle’s passing was not in vain. Much was learned from the effort to save her and the others. Because of this, the outcome for future strandings may be brighter for more of the pod. We can only hope.
- Bill Romey, lives in East Orleans and is a retired professor of geology and geography from St. Lawrence University. Water Water Everywhere is a monthly contribution of the Orleans Pond Coalition. For more information visit www.orleanspondcoalition.org.