In a rare occurrence for the Grand Strand, a pygmy sperm whale and her calf washed onto the beach Thursday in the Lake Arrowhead area and died, officials said.
The beachings, while sad for the whales, were an opportunity to educate the several hundred people who gathered on the beach to see the whales, said Robert Young, a marine science professor with Coastal Carolina University.
“It’s always sad to see a magnificent animal hit the beach. Often times the instinct is to push them back out in the water, but that’s not the best thing to do,” Young said and noted beachgoers should contact authorities if they see a marine mammal come ashore. “It’s a unique opportunity to see an animal we don’t get to see often up close.”
Volunteers with the South Carolina Marine Mammal Stranding Network passed out brochures to the crowd that contained details about whales and dolphins along the coast. They included why the animals come ashore and that there are on average about 50 dead stranded marine mammals each year on South Carolina’s beaches.
The majority – 80 percent – of those are bottlenose dolphins.
The pygmy sperm whale lives 60 to 70 miles offshore at the edge of the continental shelf, Young said. They can grow to weigh 700 to 1,000 pounds.
It’s rare to see them along the shore.
“We don’t get a lot of strandings here so we don’t have a large network like Charleston or Beaufort where it’s not unusual to have a stranding a week,” Young said, and noted the Lowcountry has more bays and salt marshes where the whales turn up. “They are common stranding in the state. They only hit the beach if they are sick and dying. This is a very sad thing because they are coming ashore sick and dying.”
In Thursday’s occurrence, Young said the mother was a full-grown adult and was 11 feet long, while her calf was less than a year old. The mother died soon after coming ashore, but the calf struggled for a while on the beach about 50 yards away from her mother, Young said.
The calf was later euthanized after being taken to Ark Animal Hospital for treatment, officials said. Veterinarians from the hospital came to the beach and evaluated the calf and sedated it for comfort.
It would be difficult for the baby to survive without her mother because being less than a year old the calf was completely dependent on the mother, Young said. A necropsy is planned to determine what caused the mother whale’s death.
“With the calf we can’t put her back in the water because her mother just passed away and she was dependent on her. If we put her in the water ... she’s going to get more injured there than she will under the wet towels,” Young said. “It’s dependant calf, a few months old, and the species doesn’t rehab well.”
The whales came ashore about 9 a.m. Thursday on the beach between Apache Pier and Kings Plantation, Horry County police Cpl. Justin Wyatt said.
Officers and lifeguards used crime scene tape to rope off the area, put beach umbrellas up over the whales for shade and put wet towels on the animals.
Officials kept the towels wet by dipping them into brightly colored sand buckets full of water until Young and others in the mammal stranding network arrived.
Beachgoers asked Young why it took a several hours for officials to attend to the calf and he said because they are volunteers and they are not in one centralized location.
Hundreds of beachgoers took photos and asked questions about the whales.
Emily Smith of Cincinnati, Ohio, arrived in the area on Wednesday to start her vacation and was not expecting such a commotion on her first visit to the beach Thursday.
“When we got up there [near the beach walk], we saw people lining the beach and people told us this whale gave birth,” Smith said. “We were pouring buckets of water on it to keep it cool. I’ve been coming to the beach since I was a baby and this has never happened. It’s definitely not what I expected for vacation.”
Down the beach a bit, Maria Patterson, also of Cincinnati, Ohio, was on her last day of vacation and saw the whales in the water before they came ashore.
“There was some brown water washing up and we were wondering what was going on and we eventually saw a fin out there,” Patterson said. “They were dumping water on the mom and dumping water on the baby. Mom was trying to get back in the water, but they got her in and she kept coming back up [ashore].”
Contact TONYA ROOT at 444-1723 or on Twitter @tonyaroot.