Number of stranded pilot whales holds to three

Some good news and an update to the story along the coast, story below.

 

Number of stranded pilot whales holds to three

State officials scoured the Lowcountry coast by air late last week but did not find other stranded whales like the one that swam ashore and later died on Hunting Island.The short-finned pilot whale that beached itself Thursday in the Fripp Inlet, between the Hunting Island pier and the bridge to Fripp Island, was one of three found stranded last week. Pilot whales also swam aground on Edisto Beach and the Story River on Fripp Island.

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources surveyed the waters between Fripp and Bulls Bay, near Charleston, on Friday but saw no other stranded animals.

However, three other pilot whales have been reported in the St. Helena Sound area, and more strandings are possible, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration biologist Wayne McFee.

“We’re still on alert. They could come back up again; we don’t know,” said McFee, a mammal-stranding expert. “I’d give it a good week at least.”

As of Monday, none of the necropsies, or animal autopsies, on the three whales had produced an explanation for their behavior. Scientists should have a better idea of what went wrong when pathology test results are available, but that could take weeks or even months, McFee said.

None of the three juvenile males had food in their stomachs, so it’s likely they had not eaten in a while, McFee said. The Edisto Beach whale had signs of possible intestinal infection. The Hunting Island whale had some minor parasitism, and the Fripp Island whale was too decomposed to provide many answers.

Pilot whales are social mammals that usually live in groups of 20 to 200. The species is known for group strandings, in which one dies and others follow. That usually occurs in the same place, which makes these separated strandings unusual, McFee said.

“This area has a lot of interesting currents and inlets that could have separated them, and they get into these marsh situations and they aren’t familiar with marsh and mud and that could have freaked them out,” he said.

The last mass pilot whale stranding in South Carolina was in 1974, when about 14 died on the shore of Kiawah Island near Charleston, McFee said.

DNR and NOAA officials said people should not approach stranded whales, and pushing them back into the water will not likely prevent them from swimming ashore again and dying. Instead, those who spot stranded whales should call DNR at 800-922-5431.

USCB students aid in necropsies of stranded dolphin, whales

Local students have been help out with a few sad stories in the area, story below.

USCB students aid in necropsies of stranded dolphin, whales

Three University of South Carolina Beaufort biology students have helped respond to three strandings in the past two weeks — one dolphin and two pilot whales — and viewed in real life the bones, muscles and organs they’ve been studying in textbooks.”It is sad, but at the same time it’s interesting. Not many people get to see a whale that close,” said senior Marvin Brown.Brown and seniors Rebecca Rawson and Steven Vega have participated in necropsies, or animal autopsies, alongside National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials.

It’s not yet clear what has caused the strandings, or if the strandings are connected. The dolphin was found Dec. 1 at Mitchelville Beach on Hilton Head Island. The pilot whales were stranded late last week off Hunting Island and along the Story River on Fripp Island.

Rawson said parasites were found in the whales’ lungs and stomachs, but that’s not unusual.

Results from tissue samples of organs were still pending Monday, NOAA marine biologist Wayne McFee said.

McFee said students occasionally participate in the necropsies, but they’re not usually undergraduates, he said.

“We like to have help, for sure,” he said. “When you’ve got such a large animal, it’s good to have as many hands as possible.”

The partnership with USCB students is recent. Professor Eric Montie worked with McFee at NOAA in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In the past year, the two began to talk about how USCB students could help.

Rawson, Vega and Brown have all taken classes with Montie and volunteered to help with strandings.

Montie said his students will continue to help by taking measurements of the animals and notes during the necropsies. The students also are working to discover, based on dorsal-fin identification, if the stranded dolphin was a resident of local waters.

Montie said he hopes the experience will boost students’ understanding of the marine life they have studied in classrooms and textbooks.

Vega said the largest animal he had dissected before encountering the dolphin and whales was a foot-long squid. Both he and Rawson marveled at the size of the larger animals’ organs.

“When you see a figure in a book, you just see the bones,” Vega said. “When you’re up close, you get to see the connective tissue and musculature around it. It’s a layered thing, but when you look at it in books, you forget that because you just see the one layer.”

Pilot whale beaches, dies at Hunting Island

Some sad wildlife news has been in the paper lately, story below.

Pilot whale beaches, dies at Hunting Island

In the end, there was nothing to do but handle the body gently.A crane arm extended slowly over the Hunting Island marsh at the Fripp Island Bridge on Thursday evening.Workers slipped the rope over the 13-foot pilot whale’s tail and gave the signal.

The glistening black animal slowly rose from the marsh, it’s huge body spinning slowly clockwise as the crane eased it up and over the bridge, before carefully lowering it into a trailer for a final journey to Charleston.

The young whale was one of several that beached themselves on Lowcountry shores over the past two days, and researchers are seeking clues to what went wrong.

“The more we know about it, then we can try to piece the puzzle together as to why these animals might have stranded,” Wayne McFee, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration marine biologist, said.

The whale will be examined for signs of infection, illness or other issues that could have lead to the stranding, which are reportedly occurring along the coast from Beaufort to Charleston.

“Pilot whales are known for mass strandings, so if you get one, generally the whole crowd is coming,” S.C. Department of Natural Resources veterinarian Al Segars said.

Pilot Whale

SIGNS OF TROUBLE

The first sign of trouble came Tuesday when a 15-foot whale washed up on the shores of Edisto Beach, Segars said. It died quickly.

The necropsy, or animal autopsy, showed the animal had signs of an intestinal infection but it was not clear if that caused the beaching behavior.

McFee said officials will have a better idea of what occurred after the results of pathology tests come in. Those results could be weeks to months away, he said.

The NOAA is heading up the investigation and was assisted on Hunting Island by volunteers, state park rangers and DNR.

Overall, three deaths have been confirmed and several others reported as of Thursday, McFee said.

The recent strandings are unusual because the whales typically go ashore in the same place and are not separated by miles, McFee said. The whales migrate through the area, but typically stay 10 to 20 miles offshore, McFee said. The animal who died on Hunting island was a short-finned pilot whale, which has a more southern range than long-finned pilot whales, he said.

The last mass pilot whale stranding in South Carolina was in 1974, when about 14 whales died on the shore of Kiawah Island near Charleston, he said. He did not know what caused those strandings.

 

WHAT TO DO

People should resist the natural urge to help the animals.

Do not approach stranded whales, McFee said. Instead, residents should call 1-800-922-5431 to report the animals to DNR officials.

“When they’re thrashing around in the surf, you don’t want to be in the way because they can do some damage to you,” McFee said. “Pushing them back out to sea is not going to do anything besides causing them to strand somewhere else.”

Segars agreed.

“If we drag him out, his coming right back in,” he said before the Hunting Island whale died. “We know that with 100 percent certainly. So there’s no reason for us to stress him out and drag him out when we know he’s coming right back.”

Segars said there is little to do beyond helping the animals die humanely. If the Hunting Island whale had not died naturally, Segars said it would have been given a injection in the heart.

Whit Suber of Fripp Island saw the whale swimming around Fripp Inlet on Thursday morning and thought it was odd because the water there is pretty shallow.

When the whale swam up the rocky marsh, Suber, who was on the bridge with his daughter Sarah, 13, knew something was definitely wrong.

“We did think about getting in and pushing it,” he said. “We chose not to for a couple of reasons. It seemed rather benign, but like (Segars) pointed out, it’s a large animal, maybe 2,000 lbs. It could really hurt you.”

He stood with his daughter as the whale was removed Thursday evening.

It’s sad,” he said, “but, you know, nothing lives forever.”