PAWLEYS ISLAND, S.C. (WBTW) — Marine mammal experts are trying to gather more information after a video posted online recently showed a group of people on a Pawleys Island beach pushing what appear to be two stranded pygmy sperm whales back into the ocean.
Micah Buller, of Richmond, Virginia, said he was flying a drone over the area to make a video of his family’s vacation. He said he shifted his focus to the whales after a family member spotted them on the beach and dozens of people swarmed toward the animals and began trying to push them back into the ocean. He was able to capture beach-goers’ efforts and post the video on YouTube.
“The first instinct is, you see these two big animals flopping around on the shore with the big red pool near them, you think it’s a shark attack,” Buller said.
Buller said some people on the beach also thought the water was red because the mother had just given birth.
However, Lauren Rust, an expert with the Charleston-based Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network, said it would be highly unusual for a pygmy sperm whale to come ashore and get stranded under those circumstances. She said it’s more likely that the water was red because pygmy sperm whales have an ink sac, similar to an octopus.
“They use it as a defense mechanism to scare off predators,” she said. “In a stressful event like this, it’s not an uncommon thing for them to do.”
Based on the video, Rust agreed that the stranded mammals appear to be pygmy sperm whales, possibly a mother and her calf. Adult pygmy sperm whales can grow to be 10 feet long and weigh around 1,000 pounds, she said.
“They are not uncommon at all for our coast of South Carolina,” she said, adding that 50 to 60 strandings occur each year on South Carolina beaches.
Rust said her organization became aware of the Pawleys Island stranding via social media shortly after it happened and would like to talk to some of the people who were involved.
While well-intentioned, Rust said it’s not a good idea for people to push beached mammals back into the ocean, because they almost always became stranded in the first place because they are compromised. In fact, this was only the third or fourth live stranding reported this year, she said.
“The public’s heart is in the right place by pushing them back out,” Rust said. “But really, getting a vet out there ASAP is the best thing we can do. If an animal is compromised, we want to see what we can do medically or, if we have to, put it out of its suffering.”
Pushing them back into the ocean if they are sick or injured may only prolong their suffering and lead to them becoming stranded again, she said. In this case, though, there have not been any reports of re-strandings, she said.
“It all happened really fast,” Buller said. “It seemed likely everybody was just more focused on trying to get them back into the water. It was all in the moment. I was focused on flying and what was going on, so I wasn’t able to get in the water and get too close. But a couple of my family went over and was helping push them back.”
Rust said anyone who encounters a beached mammal should always contact the local beach patrol or police or fire department.
“They all have our number, and we can respond,” she said. “We have volunteers and vets who are always on call. We’re based in Charleston, but we have people up and down the coast.”