By Bo Petersen
The Post and Courier
Friday, June 19, 2009
Full story and images HERE
SULLIVAN'S ISLAND — A mother and nursing calf pygmy sperm whale were found rolling in the late-night breakers near Fort Moultrie earlier this week. Litter killed them.
A necropsy found a large black plastic garbage bag in the mother's stomach, said Wayne McFee, of the National Ocean Service's marine mammal stranding program. She couldn't eat and was in severe pain. The calf couldn't survive without her and wouldn't leave her. When found, they were still alive but too sick to survive.
Marine animals can mistake plastic in the water for food. Pygmy sperm whales eat squid.
Beachgoers who found the pair struggled for two hours late Monday pushing the 900-pound female and the calf farther into the water twice; both times they simply floated back in.
"The animals were totally exhausted and the calf was cut up by something. The female just wasn't going to be able to make it. The baby was about gone," said veterinarian Johnny Ohlandt, who worked with McFee on the stranding. The whales were euthanized with an injection.
"It's just another case of dumping trash overboard off the boat," McFee said. "Now you've got two females out of the population, which is not good."
Not a lot is known about pygmy sperm whales. They're not considered endangered, but they're rarely seen at sea. Strandings of the small whales are not uncommon, with as many as four or five per year in South Carolina. A pygmy sperm whale stranded on Sullivan's in 2007. They die when brought into aquariums to be rehabilitated. It's dangerous to try pushing them back out to sea.
"These animals are on the beach for a reason. They're typically sick or injured. Pushing them out isn't going to do any good. It's just going to prolong their suffering and expose them to predation. I tell people, would you rather be attacked repeatedly by sharks or humanely euthanized?" McFee said.
"These people (trying to push the whale back out) put themselves in grave danger. They've got a 900-pound animal in the surf at night. There's that sign at Fort Moultrie warning of dangerous currents. One whack of that tail and they can knock you out, then you've got a search and rescue on your hands," he said.
Marine debris is one of those gnawing concerns for conservationists and biologists. Animals eat it and get tangled up in it. Debris can damage ships and transport invasive species. And human health concerns have begun to be raised. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has launched a multi-agency task force trying to educate people.
"Stow your waste on board the boat and if you see things floating in the water, pick them up and dispose of them on the dock," McFee said.
Reach Bo Petersen at email@example.com or 937-5744.
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For information about NOAA’s Marine Debris response program, go to marinedebris.noaa.gov
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