Q. Why do whales strand (beach themselves)?
A. It is unclear why marine mammals, such as whales and dolphins, strand, but some causes may include severe illness or injury and even damage to their internal navigational systems. Some whales strand and die in remote areas and we never know about them; some die at sea and decompose or are eaten by other animals. For these reasons, it is important that necropsies (animal autopsies) are performed on stranded whales after death to help us learn more about the causes. Sometimes, the causes are obvious, such as internal parasite infestation or obvious external injuries. At other times, even after a necropsy and analysis of blood and tissue samples (which can take several months), we cannot clearly determine cause of death.
Q. Why don’t we push the animal back into the water?
A. Healthy whales do not strand, and they should never be on a beach. We believe it would be inhumane to push a seriously ill or injured animal back out into the water to suffer and/or be attacked by predators and scavengers. According to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), large whales have only been towed back out to sea a few times worldwide and even then, it is not known whether the animal survived. In addition, conducting any kind of activity with a live whale is inherently dangerous, especially in ocean waters with any surf.
Q. Why don’t we let nature take its course instead of euthanizing the animal?
A. By the time a whale strands, the animal is usually in the process of dying, but whales are amazingly strong air-breathing animals and can linger on for days while their organs overheat, literally cooking inside. We believe euthanasia is preferable to days of suffering on the beach and is the most humane course of action, especially in populated waterfront areas.
Q. Why does it sometimes take several days for a euthanized whale to die?
A. Unlike treating a horse, dog or cat, it’s difficult to determine the amount of sedation needed to humanely euthanize an animal that may be the size of a large city bus. Veterinarians must estimate the weight of the whale in order to determine how much medication is required. Depending upon water depth and surf conditions, or in the case of a dying whale in open water, the medication must be delivered remotely (by dart or pole) rather than by hand, a dangerous and uncertain process for stranding response professionals. As a result, it can sometimes take several days to mobilize and deliver the needed sedation for a large whale euthanasia event. In addition, if it is unclear how or where the whale will be disposed of, the type and amount of medication must be weighed against possible environmental effects.
Q. Can I volunteer to help with a stranded whale?
A. Only highly trained and authorized personnel should respond to marine mammals in distress, especially large whales which can be extremely dangerous to work around because of their size and mass. A human in the water or on the beach can be killed by a swipe of the tail or pectoral fins, and a dead whale in the surf may roll onto workers unexpectedly. Further, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act protect whales, so experts in whale biology, behavior, and medical care must be in charge of stranding response or rescue efforts to ensure that the animals are treated as humanely and carefully as possible.
Q. Why don’t stranding personnel stay with a whale when it’s dying?
A. Most whales have never had human contact and are understandably frightened of people. With no concept of our desire to help, they are not comforted by human presence or touch, and this additional stress can only add to their suffering.
Q. Why don’t we try to treat and/or rehabilitate stranded whales?
A. Stranded whales are usually in the process of dying. In fact, even an otherwise healthy whale is most likely seriously injured if it strands because whales are not designed to support their huge bodies on land or even in shallow water. A stranded whale cannot breathe properly, it quickly overheats and suffers from a range of medical problems in addition to the underlying cause of the stranding. While some facilities can accommodate smaller marine mammals, such as dolphins, for potential rehabilitation, there are no facilities in the U.S. that can accommodate large ill or injured whales.
Q. What should I do if I see a stranded or entangled whale?
A. Do not approach it from land or water, and keep dogs away from any wild animal on the beach. Note the location and the time you observe the animal and immediately (or as soon as possible) call the Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Team at (757) 385-7575.