While there were no doubt whale beachings along the coast since time immemorial, and interest rekindled after last week’s pilot whale affair went international, one of the first major stories of a local whale beaching occurred in Oct. 9, 1948. As the years went on, so did curious beaching events of both pilot whales — which aren’t supposed to be near the coast — and pygmy sperm whales, which are known to travel much closer to shore.
The 1948 whale, 15 feet long and weighing more than a ton, washed ashore near the Sea Island golf course.
“R.J. Ludgate, chief engineer of the Jekyll-St. Simons ferry boat, Neptune, said it resisted stoutly, when spectators attempted to pull it back into the water,” The News reported. “At noon, the whale was near the top of the beach, where, though stroked by a gentle incoming tide, it seemed destined to stay until hauled away by human hands.
“In the opinion of Count D. Gibson, former head of the Department of Geology at the Georgia School of Technology, the seafaring days of the coal-black mammal are over. Although Mr. Gibson has not seen this particular whale, he believes an examination will disclose it to be an old male suffering from the infirmities of age and unable to keep pace with his school.”
Gibson denied the suicide theory, arguing only human beings do such a thing. He also said the whale might have beached itself while in the process of trying to escape from a predatory octopus.
Gibson’s son, Dr. Count D. Gibson Jr. — a New York physician — conducted the necropsy and found that while the organs were in good condition, it appeared the whale hadn’t eaten for some time.
In May 1962, a group of 17 pilot whales came ashore on St. Simons Island in roughly the same area.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said there is no known reason for the actions of the whales,” The News reported in a brief below a photo of the scene. “Such mass beachings are reported from time to time, Jack W. Gehringer of the biological research laboratory here, said. The whales, also known as blackfish, have a globular head and coal-black skin. They normally live in South Atlantic waters but stay away from shore.
“One, still living, was towed back to deep water but promptly returned to the beach. Gehringer recommended the best disposition of the whales is to bury them. Their species is Globicephala ventricosa, he said.”
A 15-foot pilot whale beached itself at the southern end of Jekyll Island in March 1977, and died en route to care at Marineland in St. Augustine, Fla.
“Jingle Davis of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources said today the whale was kept alive by beach campers and DNR rangers after it was discovered until officials from Marineland arrived on the scene about 2 p.m. Sunday,” The News reported. “Mrs. Davis said technical problems were encountered when trying to fit the large mammal into the bed of the truck.
“A comfortable nest was finally constructed for the whale, she said, and the truck departed for Florida around 4:30 p.m. She added she was certain the whale’s death was caused by its injuries and not by the transit.”
Early guesses as to cause of the beaching in that matter was a parasitic worm infestation in the middle and inner ear. The necropsy resulted in a conclusion that death came because of a hemorrhaged left lung and trauma from the beaching itself.
“According to an autopsy performed by Robert L. Jenkins, curator of Marineland in St. Augustine, Fla., an examination of the whale’s respiratory system showed a large amount of blood and foam permeating the mammal’s left lung and lower third of its right lung,” The News reported. “Also found was a certain amount of sand particles, which could have contributed to the hemorrhaging.”
The creature also displayed minor infections of the liver and lymph nodes.
While short-finned pilot whales make their habitat in warmer waters, that’s not so much the case with long-finned pilot whales, which tend to be what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls “anti-tropical.” But, the Northern Hemisphere habitat zone does dip fairly far south. In May 2000, a 14-foot and emaciated long-finned pilot whale ended up on the beach on Jekyll Island.
Four tourists — Karla and Christopher Huddle of Covington, and Sheri Sieferheld and Michael Nedwidek of North Carolina — tried to assist before experts arrived on the scene.
“With the tide pushing the whale toward the rocks, the men, overcoming qualms about touching the large mammal, tried to push him into deeper water while their wives phoned for help,” wrote Jacqueline Berlin of The News. “For the four tourists it was the start of a six-hour ordeal in 90 degree-plus heat.
“‘The worst part was in the beginning when it was just us and we were trying to keep him off the rocks,’ said Huddle. ‘We thought if he kept him from that a Coast Guard boat would arrive, haul him out to see and everything would be fine.’”
Later, 4-H Club members joined in and DNR biologists arrived on the scene around an hour and a half into the process. Ultimately, a group of around 10 people got the half-ton whale in water deep enough to where it could’ve swam away if it were so inclined, which it was not.
There was a mention that at some point in the 1950s there was a stranding of around 30 pilot whales on St. Simons, but there is no record of such an event in editions of The News from that time.
DNR biologist Mark Dodd worked the scene, and told Berlin it was clear the whale hadn’t been well for awhile. Eventually the crew moved the whale up to Driftwood Beach, where it was euthanized.
As for the three pilot whales that died on St. Simons following the incident July 16, DNR Wildlife Resources Division spokesman Rick Lavender said they do not yet have the necropsy results in hand.