Hundreds of rescuers from the NSRI, the City of Cape Town, Environmental Affairs and Table Mountain National Park joined forces on the beach in a bid to save the handful of surviving whales.
NSRI spokesman Craig Lambinon said the rescuers were in a race against time. “We are working as quickly as we can,” he said, “but these are very large animals “.
By mid-afternoon just seven of the whales were still alive, stretched across a few hundred metres of the beach, while a steady stream of onlookers trudged through the sand for a better look.
A veterinarian was on the scene to assess the condition of surviving whales, and those deemed to have a good chance of living were rolled into slings that front-end loaders then hoisted gently onto flatbed trailers provided.
Once loaded, the trailers were hauled back across the beach and then over the mountain to the naval dockyard at Simonstown, where the whales were to be released. Lambinon said the whales could not be simply pushed back into the sea at Noordhoek Beach.
“It’s too rough and they may come ashore again somewhere else,” he said. While moving them was logistically difficult, they stood a better chance of survival if released into the calmer waters of False Bay. This is not the first time a mass beaching has taken place in Cape Town. In 2009, 55 false killer whales came ashore on nearby Long Beach in Kommetjie.
Rescuers struggled for hours to get the whales back into the sea, only for the survivors to beach themselves again.
Experts are divided as to why whales and dolphins beach themselves in what seems from a human perspective to be mass suicides.
“The problem is normal,” said Lambinon. Pilot whales – members of the dolphin family – are well-known for beaching themselves.
In a 2009 report in Scientific American, Darlene Ketten, a neuroethologist and expert in hearing in marine animals, said potential causes of beaching included diseases, the effects of red tides, pollution and shark attacks.
While some environmental groups say that whales’ navigation may be affected by sonar, Ketten was quick to point out that the case has never been proven.
With known beachings dating back to the time of Aristotle, Ketten notes that beaching may be a natural, rather than human-made phenomenon.