Four pilot whales stranded on an Outer Cape Cod beach since Monday night were euthanized Wednesday afternoon as their condition deteriorated, according to the animal welfare group attempting to return them to the ocean.
Their deaths concluded a multiday, 50-person rescue effort that saw the whales returned to the water, leaving the rescuers hopeful their mission had been completed, only for the animals to turn back toward shore and wind up stranded again.
An original group of six whales became trapped on land after they were spotted swimming in the shallow waters off Sunken Meadow Beach in Eastham around dusk Monday. One whale — a calf — died on the beach that night, according to a statement from the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Rescuers from the organization returned the five others to the water on Tuesday, but all but one became stranded again shortly after dark.
Around 3 p.m. Wednesday, a spokesperson for IFAW said the rescue team had “made the difficult decision to euthanize these animals” as it became clear that further rescue efforts were not possible, and as daylight faded and heavy winds and rain moved into the area.
The beached whales were in declining health after multiple days out of their natural marine habitat, said Stacey Hedman, IFAW’s communications director.
“It’s the most humane decision to make in a circumstance like this,” she said.
After the whales were first spotted Monday evening, IFAW’s Marine Mammal Rescue and Research team — a Cape Cod-based rescue unit — arrived on the beach early Tuesday morning to attempt to refloat the massive creatures. Of the five whales to survive their first night on land, the largest was nearly two tons, according to a statement from Brian Sharp, the team’s director.
The rescuers worked throughout Tuesday to provide care to the whales in hopes of returning them to the water during high tide, around 3:20 p.m. that day.
“Our team is performing health assessments on all the animals, providing supportive care, giving IV fluids to help combat the effects of stress and shock from the stranding,” Sharp said in a statement around noon Tuesday. “We’re looking at options to be able to refloat these animals. Right now, we just need the tide to come in and help us refloat because these animals are so large. So we’re doing everything we can right now to give these animals a shot at the best outcome.”
The five surviving whales were refloated and released into the ocean just before 4 p.m. Tuesday and “swam off well in one direction together,” Misty Niemeyer, IFAW’s stranding coordinator, said in a statement.
But four of the whales turned back to shore and were again beached in a “very difficult-to-reach location” near the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, Hedman said. With the team strained from a full-day rescue attempt, Niemeyer said the team decided around 5 p.m. to halt the rescue attempt.
“The team is exhausted,” she said. “Large animals can be quite dangerous to work around, and it’s for our health as well as tomorrow’s continued efforts that we need to call it a day today.”
The rescue effort resumed Wednesday, with an understanding that weather could influence the operation, Hedman said. Forecasts called for rain and wind gusts as high as 50 miles per hour in the area Wednesday afternoon.
In an email sent at 2:45 p.m., Hedman said the rescue team had decided to euthanize the four remaining whales.
“This is tough on all of our responders,” she said. “We were cautiously optimistic and put a tremendous amount of work into this effort. If you were there, you likely felt our hopefulness as the whales first swam off at the end of the day yesterday.”
In a video message provided by Hedman, Niemeyer said the animals were not used to having to support their full body weight on the ground and were doing “very poorly.”
Rescuers and veterinarians determined the animals could not survive another rescue attempt, nor would another attempt be possible given the weather and waning daylight, Niemeyer said.
“We gave them the best shot we could yesterday,” she said.
Cape Cod is a “global hotspot” for whale and dolphin stranding, according to Hedman. Pilot whales strandings on the Cape “are less frequent, but they do happen,” she said.
As mammals that breathe air, whales can survive out of their ocean habitat for many hours with proper care.
Since its first Cape Cod rescue effort in 1998, the Marine Mammal Rescue and Research team has helped more than 5,800 stranded dolphins, whales, seals and other marine mammals return to the ocean. The team has 200 trained volunteers throughout the Cape.
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