Beached pilot whale dies in Beaufort Co.; officials expect more

A pilot whale is beached on Hunting Island at the foot of the Fripp Island Bridge. (Source: Hunting Island Ranger Jeff Cucinella)
A pilot whale is beached on Hunting Island at the foot of the Fripp Island Bridge. (Source: Hunting Island Ranger Jeff Cucinella)

BEAUFORT COUNTY, SC (WTOC) - A whale died Thursday after being stranded on the shore in Fripp Inlet near the Nature Center at Hunting Island State Park. Now, officials say there are several other whales facing a similar fate.

It's certainly is not something you expect to see in the Lowcountry, an 18-foot pilot whale, weighing almost a ton, beached on the shore.

"We get to see a lot of wildlife here, dolphins and such but I've never seen a whale, it's pretty amazing," said Whit Suber, Fripp Island resident.

But officials say this whale should have never turned up here.

"It generally lives off shore," said Al Segars, veterinarian, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. "The fact that he's here in the Fripp Inlet tells me something is very wrong."

Unfortunately, Segars says this is one of several pilot whales in this same situation.

"Pilot whales are very social animals," said Segars. "They don't strand alone and so generally when one pilot whale comes ashore, there are other whales coming ashore. They have a very strong social bond in that pod of animals. We've had reports from fishermen about other pilot whales aimlessly circling near shore so we were concerned we were going to have a mass straining event and that's what's happening now. We know four additional animals that have come ashore today and possibly several more are to come ashore still.

Experts are not sure why this happens.

"There are theories as far as parasites, maybe navigational errors, there could be a diseased animal that's maybe the leader of the pack and the group follows even though it's not in their best interest," said Segars.

While they'd like to save these whales, they say there just are not many options.

"We know if we put this animal back in the water, it's going to come right back on shore," said Segars. "It's happened time and time again. So with this species, when you get a mass stranding event, you're really limited."

Fishermen in the area say they have noticed other struggling whales over the last day.

"Sometimes we see them five or six miles out, but never as close as we have lately. I could see the fin sticking up," fisherman Robert Gay said.

The whale has been loaded up and taken to the NOAA lab in Charleston so they can perform an animal autopsy to hopefully find out more about why these animals do this and what causes it.

Copyright 2012 WTOC. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2012 WTOC. All rights reserved.