Community rallies to save beached whales

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Beached Whales

JUDIQUE, N.S. – Residents of a small community on Cape Breton’s west coast poured buckets of water over 16 beached pilot whales and waded in neck-deep water in an effort to save the mammals after they became stuck on the rocky shores of St. George’s Bay, a local resident said.

Linden MacIntyre, a former journalist who lives about a kilometre from the site in Judique, N.S., said he believes the whales were beached at McKays Point off Shore Road sometime early Tuesday morning as the tide went out.

MacIntyre said eleven whales survived, but five died, including a small whale and a larger whale that was about three metres long. Late Thursday afternoon, the Fisheries Department said 10 whales survived and six had died.

MacIntyre said a resident noticed the beached whales Tuesday morning and began calling other people in the area to help keep them alive until the tide came back into the beach in St. George’s Bay, a decommissioned fishing harbour roughly 35 kilometres north of the Canso Causeway.

“It’s quite remarkable… how quickly the word spread in this little rural community and how enthusiastically people reacted to a bunch of mammals like us who were in deep distress,” said MacIntyre in a phone interview from his home.

“There was something kind of magical about the spirit on the shore, dealing with these magnificent beasts.”

MacIntyre said about 25 people poured buckets of water over the whales, but the rough surf was keeping them wet, so their main concern was propping the heavy whales upright and keeping their blowholes uncovered so they did not drown.

As the tide came in, residents worked together to move the whales to safety in deeper water, with some people wading up to their necks, he said.

MacIntyre said the freed whales were reluctant to leave without the rest of their pod.

“They’re so socially conscious of one another that one will not leave when the others are still trapped,” said MacIntyre, adding that the whales were mostly quiet except for a calf that was whimpering.

“When we got one loose we had to keep him from coming back into trouble. People would get one out and have to stand there and keep waving him away.”

MacIntyre said he helped get one of the larger whales to safety and that whale appeared to be the pod’s leader, as the others were following him.

“I suddenly found myself standing up to my neck in this pod of very large critters,” said MacIntyre. “When the big guy realized he had what was left of the family, you could see the whole lot of them making their way out in this tight little group. It was kind of like they were having a discussion as they went.

“You could see the dorsals and the tails as they sadly swam away towards the horizon. I just stood there and said, ‘This is something you don’t ever forget’.”

It’s not unusual for whales to become stuck in that section of the bay, said MacIntyre. He said whales can become trapped between the rocky shore and a sandbar during low tide.

But MacIntyre said another resident who lives nearby told him this was the largest group of beached whales he’d ever seen in the area.

The Fisheries Department said in an email statement that five fishery officers trained in marine mammal rescues were deployed to the site Tuesday, but the surviving whales had already been returned to sea upon their arrival.

— By Aly Thomson in Halifax