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Four Pilot Whales Strand on Edisto Beach

A Pilot Whale stranded on Edisto Beach the morning of September 28.
Photo provided by Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network.

Not long after dawn on Saturday September 28 beach walkers found four pilot whales stranded on Edisto Beach. Edisto’s police Chief George Brothers received a phone call at 7:03 a.m. regarding the stranded pilot whales, and was on the scene within minutes. Chief Brothers notified SCDNR, NOAA and the relatively new Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network (LMMN). Around 10 a.m. a veterinarian associated with the LMMN was on the scene and proceeded to euthanize the pilot whales that were suffering on the beach.
“When I arrived on the scene, each one of the four whales was still alive,” said Edisto Police Chief George Brothers. “The group consisted of two bigger ones, maybe about 15-feet in length and two smaller ones that I assume were calves. This was a new experience on Edisto Beach and I certainly appreciate all the people that came out to try and comfort the pilot whales. Some brought umbrellas to shade the pilot whales, and many brought buckets to transport water in an effort to keep the whales calm and cool. It was a community effort.”
A fifth pilot whale was spotted on Saturday in the nearshore waters off the beach, and was likely another candidate for stranding. Chief Brothers conducted a search by boat on Sunday for the fifth pilot whale and did not find it on Edisto. A few days earlier on Wednesday September 25 on St. Catherine’s Island south of Savannah, another pod of pilot whales stranded. Of the 26 pilot whales found on the beach, 15 did not survive and the rest were pushed back into the water. It’s hard to know why the pilot whales are coming to the coastline, but they usually inhabit open ocean about 100 miles from land.
The Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network was founded in 2017 by marine biologist Lauren Rust. They protect marine mammals like dolphins and whales that are present in South Carolina waters. The LMMN hopes to increase awareness about marine mammals and is a part of the S.C. Marine Mammal Stranding Network that operates under a letter of authorization by the NOAA Fisheries arm of the federal government. Marine mammals are protected by law under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the LMMN exists in order to coordinate pertinent activities when a stranding occurs like the one on Edisto Beach.
In the case of the four pilot whales, the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network conducted a necropsy on one specimen in order to determine why these whales would have been sick or weak. The samples collected will be tested for viruses, biotoxins, and histology in order to detect any contributing factors. Even though the four whales did not appear to have injuries, typically something is wrong with one or more of them to come onshore. Smaller calves like the ones at Edisto may simply follow their parent on to the beach, and pilot whales in general are known for their social cohesion.
A wide range of responses to the presence of the pilot whales at Edisto can be found on social media pages. Some folks question why the pilot whales weren’t placed back into the sea, and given the chance to swim off. The Facebook page for the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network states that pushing these pilot whales back into the ocean was determined to only prolong their suffering. Thus a decision was reached to conduct a humane act, and provide them euthanasia. The LMMN goes on to say that every stranding situation is different and that the decision was made in conjunction with the other organizations present.
At the other end of the social media equation, many people thanked the LMMN for taking action in this case, and for offering explanations at every step using several FaceBook posts during the day Saturday. It’s clear from the volume of comments that this was a heart-breaking situation for those that love the Lowcountry and appreciate the playful dolphins seen frequently from the beach. People want to understand if there is some unforeseen threat to marine mammals at sea, but Mother Nature isn’t always quick to reveal her methods. With each successive stranding the marine biologists can learn more and apply that knowledge during any future distress calls. If you see any distressed marine mammal please report it to 1-800-922-5431.
Jeff Dennis is a Lowcountry native. Read his blog at LowcountryOutdoors.com

Jeff Dennis, Contributor (374 Posts)

Jeff Dennis is a Lowcountry native. Read his blog at www.LowcountryOutdoors.com