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Nine beached whales die on Cape Cod, dozens of other are saved
By Associated Press, 07/29/02
DENNIS, Mass. — More than 50 pilot whales beached themselves on a stretch of Cape Cod sand Monday and nine of them died before vacationers and other volunteers could push the animals back to deeper water in a feverish rescue effort.
Hundreds of vacationers lined a quarter-mile of Chapin Beach and watched as rescuers tended to the small, glistening black whales, first discovered stranded about 6 a.m.
One of the whales was dead when rescuers arrived, and one other was euthanized after it went into shock, said Sallie Riggs, director of Cape Cod Stranding Network. Seven others died after spending hours in the hot sun. Carcasses were taken away in a dump truck while volunteers poured buckets of water over the others and draped them with wet towels to keep them moist.
The rising tide at midday helped the volunteers push the remaining 46 whales into water deep enough for the animals to swim on their own.
"To see this many whales get off free after six hours is amazing," said Judy Scarafile, a member of the stranding network. "We all have our fingers crossed that they'll not come back."
Officials had no idea why the group became stranded. A necropsy was to be conducted on the first whale that died.
Volunteers from stranding network, the New England Aquarium and the Center for Coastal Studies and others who aided in the rescues said they would remain on alert for the next day or two in case the whales return. If one does, it would have to be euthanized so it didn't continue to lead others astray, said Katie Touhey, program director for the stranding network.
The stranded whales made whistling and clicking noises in the water -- an attempt to communicate -- as volunteers tried to dig sand out from under them or keep them wet, said Eric Montie, 31, a graduate student in biological oceanography at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
"It's a traumatic event," Montie said, referring to the whales. "It's like you and I facing death."
Vacationers worked alongside marine experts. Some helped hold the whales' heads above water while others formed a "bucket brigade" to douse the whales.
"We came to the beach expecting a nice relaxing day," said Rob Barresi, of Natick, who with his brother, Michael, helped the whales.
Seven-year-old Joseph Graziano, of Milford, awoke around 7 a.m. for his first day of vacation and saw what he thought were giant rocks. Then he looked through his binoculars and realized the black masses near shore were animals.
He roused a friend and the boys joined the first handful of volunteers who were pouring water over the ailing whales. Joseph did not fully understand why rescuers needed to euthanize one of the whales.
"We were pretty mad," he said. "They put some of them to sleep with all the work we were doing."
Pilot whales are common in New England waters. They range from 12 to 16 feet in length as adults and weigh about 1,800 pounds. Also known as blackfish, they feed on squid, sand eels and small crustaceans.
Mass strandings of pilot whales are not unusual since they are highly sociable animals that travel and feed in groups and frequent areas near the coastline.
In July 2000, 10 pilot whales were stranded in shallow water off Nantucket Island. They died despite the efforts of volunteers and whale experts.
On Christmas Eve 1991, 31 pilot whales became stranded off Cape Cod and died. Scientists said the whales apparently were following tiny crustaceans called krill when they became trapped in the shallows.