Four pygmy killer whales swam ashore Wednesday morning, and officials were forced to euthanize three of them after they were unable to swim back into the ocean.
The mammals were first sighted late Tuesday off the coast of North Myrtle Beach, said Dean Cain, a biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
Numerous beach-goers spotted them for a second time this morning about 6:30 a.m. Two of the whales approached the shore around 12th Avenue South, but citizens eventually helped them swim to safety.
One of those whales, however, beached itself again about 9 a.m. Two more whales beached themselves around 21st Avenue South a short time later.
After determining that the whales would not survive in the open ocean, authorities euthanized the three whales. A necropsy will be performed on the animals to determine what was wrong with them.
Pygmy whales are toothed whales about the size of dolphins - 7 to 8 feet long - and can weigh 400 to 600 pounds.
"They are still in the dolphin family, but the common name for them is pygmy killer whales," said Wayne McFee, of the federal Marine Mammal Stranding Network. "They are not your large whales."
These types of whales do not typically travel farther south than Virginia, Cain said. These types of whales often travel in groups and when one animals gets sick, the others will follow it, even if that means they end up killing themselves.
"They did everything they could," said Brian Williamsen, a spokesman for the city of North Myrtle Beach. He said that city and Department of Natural Resources workers put wet towels and poured water on the animals to try to keep them alive.
"It was in the best interest of the animals to do that because one they couldn't swim very well, and two it basically was bait for sharks. Sad as it might be, they had to make that call," Williamsen said.
Whales get sick for many of the same reasons as humans: viruses or bacterial infections, McFee said.
"This particular species tend to be in groups of 10 or more animals and they are very social," McFee said. "When one of them is sick the other ones tend to follow them in. Or there could be a number of them sick within the pod and they stick together and come into the beach."
Pygmy killer whale strandings are not common, and McFee said it was only the third he could recall along the South Carolina coast.