whale necropsies

Trip Kolkmeyer with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources measures pilot whale flukes during a necropsy.

Sometimes the answers are neither quick nor easy, despite the desire for both. Thursday afternoon came news of initial discoveries from necropsies of the three pilot whales that died on St. Simons Island during a stranding event that began July 16. Unfortunately, nothing definitive turned up, and a lengthy process of microscopic examinations are ahead to get a better idea of what happened.

According to a statement released by the state Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division, all three whales were adult males, 15.7-16 feet, with empty gastrointestinal tracts. DNR wildlife biologist Clay George said that indicates they could have been in poor health, been away from usual food in their deep-water habitat for a while, or both.

Also, the whales had two types of parasites in their ear canals and sinuses, but there’s not conclusive evidence whether they made a significant impact on the whales’ health.

George said the pod that used to be home to the three whales may have been spotted Sunday off Florida.

“A video taken by a charter fisherman last Sunday shows a dorsal fin that looks very similar to the dorsal fin of one of the St. Simons whales,” George said in a statement. “The video was grainy, so we can’t be 100 percent certain.”

As The News published Tuesday, there are records of at least three other pilot whale strandings in the last 60 years or so locally — 1962, 1977 and 2000.

Staff with DNR, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, the University of Georgia Marine Institute, Savannah State University and the U.S. Geological Survey all worked on the necropsies.

To get a more complete idea of what could be behind such strandings, in 1979 four scientists — Blair Irvine and Michael Scott of the National Fish and Wildlife Laboratory in Gainesville, Fla., Randall Wells of the University of Florida Department of Zoology, and James Mead of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History — collaborated on a journal article on the 1977 strandings that not only hit St. Simons Island, but ran from Mayport, Fla., to Edisto Island, S.C. The piece notes there were also around 15 pilot whales stranded on the south end of Cumberland Island.

“As with most mass strandings of marine mammals, the cause was not clear,” the group wrote. “A cold weather frontal system passed through the area on the day prior to the stranding, but was not unusual for that time of year and probably was not related to the stranding. None of the whales were obviously injured and none appeared to follow a lead individual ashore.

“A combination of the passage through the surf into the river and the shallows in the bay may have confused and disoriented the animals, thus increasing the probability that they would strand. The whales appeared to tire with time, as evidenced by their less-vigorous response to being pulled off the beach on 7 February; but why some animals died quickly after stranding on 7 February while others remained alive for hours on the beach or stranded repeatedly is unknown.”

The scientists also concluded that it was clear more data was needed to figure out why these creatures strand and how to deal with them once they hit the beach.

“If the efforts to save mass stranding victims prove futile because the animals immediately restrand, euthanasia may be the most humane alternative,” they wrote. “As shown by this report, however, some animals may survive a mass stranding and potentially can be a source of valuable data if resighted elsewhere.

“It would also seem that the spirit of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 obligates American citizens to save stranded marine mammals if practical. An effort is therefore needed to get experienced people to a mass stranding site quickly so the rescue techniques can be evaluated and data collection can be maximized.”

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