Over 100 short-finned pilot whales stranded in Panadura beach guided back to sea
By Dimithri Wijesinghe
In what is now being called “Sri Lanka’s biggest mass beaching”, a large school of short-finned pilot whales began coming ashore in Panadura on 2 November afternoon, with the numbers swelling, approximately over 100 whales being beached.
Due to the efforts of the locals, various independent environmental organisations and experts, the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), Sri Lanka Coast Guard (SLCG), and Sri Lanka Navy, the rescue mission was carried out immediately and effectively.
Speaking to The Morning Brunch, Sri Lanka Navy Media Spokesperson Captain Indika De Silva, speaking on behalf of the Navy and the Panadura and Wellawatte Coast Guard Stations that assisted in the rescue efforts, shared that the last of the whales were sent back at 8 a.m. on yesterday (3) morning. He said that as soon as the news broke, the Panadura Coast Guard Station was able to attend to the matter as early as between 2 and 2.30 p.m.
He said that once rescue efforts began to get underway, in addition to the 28 persons sent from the Coast Guard Stations in Pandura and Wellawatte, the Navy also had 37 officers who joined in the efforts. He said that the Navy also sent water jets which are the inshore patrol crafts, the smallest currently available, in order to assist with the guiding of the animals to the deep waters.
Cap. De Silva said that in addition to all these officials, the many lifesaver stations set up along this large stretch were of great help in getting the situation under control.
He said that as of now, they have come across only three carcasses, two whales and one beached mammal proved to be a dolphin, out of which the latter was found in Wadduwa.
Largest single pod of whales stranded on our shores: Dr. Terney Pradeep Kumara
Speaking to The Morning Brunch, Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) General Manager/CEO Dr. Terney Pradeep Kumara shared that this is the largest single pod of whales stranded on our shores, adding that for these particular kinds of animals, it is a common occurrence.
He shared that pilot whales are a species known to strand, having experienced a stranding event on the east coast a few years ago; in September 2020, Australia witnessed the largest pilot whale stranding event in its history with an estimated 470 whales being stranded.
Why they strand is not yet fully known, but Dr. Pradeep Kumara added that they assume it’s because of their highly social nature. If one animal strays too close to the coastline and gets pushed onto the beach by the waves, there is a high chance the others will follow.
He said that in addition to this, there are multiple other theories including that the way these marine mammals communicate is through echolocation by emitting sound waves, and with submarines and large shipping vessels in the oceans using sonar and high-powered radars, it can cause pain to these animals, which then drives them to swim away from these disturbances, causing them to dive much deeper beyond their normal depths.
This could lead to a number of complications inducing the increased concentration of nitrogen in their blood, as well as disorientation and other difficulties which could lead to strandings such as this.
Dr. Pradeep Kumara went on to explain that once they are beached, the sun exposure can damage their blubber layer that surrounds marine mammals, which then causes hypothermia, which is why we must move quickly when guiding them back into the ocean. It must also be done carefully as it is not a matter of simply rolling them back into the water.
We had to move fast: Muditha Katuwawala
The Pearl Protectors Co-ordinator Muditha Katuwawala, who also had volunteers at the site, shared that the efforts on the ground were very well carried out, adding that they had to move fast and so the authorities did their best.
He said that as the animals were fatigued, it was difficult to tell if they were alive or not as they were being guided back into the deep waters in the pitch black of the night while the rough waves were breaking on the beach. He said that it is a great feat that only three casualties were found in the whole ordeal. However, he said they cannot guarantee that all the animals that were released back into the water would be surviving.
There was an admirable community effort: Asha de Vos
Marine biologist and Oceanswell Founder Asha de Vos, who was on the scene helping with the operation, shared her thoughts on the matter, shedding some light on the extent of the operation. She shared that the people on the ground had to manage animals that were between 3-5.5-m-long (10-18 feet), weighing at 1,000-3,000 kg, and that they had to turn the animals upright against the crashing waves in order to direct them into the surf and to move them beyond their own height of water.
She stated that despite the challenges, there was an admirable community effort, adding that they were working in darkness. She also expressed her gratitude to the owners of 4×4 vehicles who turned up to help and provide light as there was no real natural light. There was also the aid of jet skis and the manpower that showed up that helped carry out the operation effectively.
She explained that the difficulty was because the whales were stuck in a treadmill, almost, they would be guided past some of the crashing waves, but they were weakening and the waves would push them back. Then the process would start again.
If they lie on the beach for more than a few hours, the animals are as good as dead. The weight of their bodies will crush their organs in the absence of the buoyancy of the water. In this case, the animals often need to be euthanized.
However, despite these difficulties, she said that everyone was receptive to the information and were happy to learn. She said that they lost one animal on her watch, and she heard that by morning, there were two others who were found to have been dead.
She stressed that considering the nature of the situation, it was an admirable effort by the people and the authorities, which showed that they really cared about these animals.
Photos: The Pearl Protectors