A Race to Save 10 Stranded Whales

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A Race to Save 10 Stranded Whales
A drone camera showed nine of the 10 whales that were stranded off the coast of Indonesia on Monday. Credit Chaideer Mahyuddin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Rescuers in Indonesia worked late into Monday night to rescue a pod of sperm whales that had become stranded in the shallow waters of an island near the northwest tip of Sumatra in Aceh Province.

The LIVE stranding of 10 sperm whales in Aceh. Video credit WWF Indonesia @WWF_ID @WWF via Dwi Suprapti. pic.twitter.com/YgiW9pN3AD

— Strandings Indonesia (@stranding_ID) Nov. 13, 2017

The 10 whales were spotted Monday morning, according to Whale Stranding Indonesia, a marine mammal conservation organization based in Jakarta, Indonesia, that has been monitoring the rescue on its Facebook page.

Stranding alert: Live: ten (10) sperm whales are stranded alive at Ujung Kareng Beach, Mesjid Raya, Aceh. Info from Arie, DVM, Unsyiah Aceh via Dwi Suprapti, WWF Indonesia. Rescue effort is currently underway with, among others, BPSPL Padang. Photos: Ariehttps://t.co/bQMdC9ruBM pic.twitter.com/HYtD0pxPoz

— Strandings Indonesia (@stranding_ID) Nov. 13, 2017

Local officials, aided by nonprofits like World Wildlife Fund Indonesia, coordinated a rescue effort using nets, tarpaulins and boats, the group said.

As daylight gave way to darkness on Ujung Kareung beach, the rescuers didn’t give up. As of about midnight local time they were still working, Whale Stranding Indonesia told The New York Times via a Facebook message.

Earlier in the day, the rescuers successfully relocated five of the whales to deeper water, Nur Mahdi, the head of the Aceh Province marine and fisheries office in Sumatra, told The Associated Press. They are also treating two injured whales and attempting to refloat the others, he said.

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“The team seems to be determined to work during night time to release the remaining whales,” Whale Stranding Indonesia reported.

Two more whales were released just before sunrise, the group said, according to an official from the Center for Coastal and Marine Resources Management, the regional marine and fisheries authority in Indonesia.

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A Race to Save 10 Stranded Whales
Indonesian officials and environmental activists worked to save one of the 10 stranded whales. Credit Chaideer Mahyuddin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Time was of the essence in this situation, in part because whales that come near land are at risk of suffocation and organ failure.

“If you’re 60,000 pounds and your body is meant to float around then gravity can take its toll,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, the director of the North American office of Whale and Dolphins Conservation, a nonprofit that has assisted with whale strandings in the United States.

In addition, the shock of being stranded evokes a stress response.

“Elevated levels of adrenaline also take toll on the organs,” Ms. Asmutis-Silvia said. It’s similar to that of a human that has been in a car accident, she added.

It’s unclear why the pod of whales swam so close to shore. Sperm whales, which are listed as an endangered species, are the largest of the toothed whales. They are not usually found in waters less than 984 feet deep, and prefer areas two times deeper than that, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries.

In February, more than 650 pilot whales became stranded at the northern tip of South Island in New Zealand for reasons that were also unknown, and about 400 of them died. Pathologists hoped to find answers by studying some of the dead animals.

And in April, officials said they were investigating an “alarming” number of humpback whale strandings along the Atlantic coast.

There are multiple reasons these events can happen, Ms. Asmutis-Silvia said, including navigational error, changes in the environment, a wayward hunt for food or tidal changes.

Sperm whales tend to travel as a group and are unlikely to abandon their podmates.

“When they’re in tight social groups they’re in this together,” Ms. Asmutis-Silvia said.

Whales are especially important to the ecosystem, she said, because their waste fertilizes phytoplankton, the plants that produce half the world’s oxygen.

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