Saving one 40-ton sperm whale is a huge feat—so when 10 live sperm whales washed ashore off the coast of Aceh in northeastern Indonesia, it required a small army of wildlife volunteers.
In an emailed statement from WWF Indonesia, representative Aryo Tjiptohandono said the WWF team, environmental officials from the Indonesian government, and the Indonesian Navy were dispatched to Ujung Kareng Beach on Monday morning. Posting live updates on their Facebook page, the local conservation group Whale Stranding Indonesia commented that rescue groups were working around the clock to save the whales.
Successfully moving whales back into the ocean requires trained professionals with the right equipment, and some luck. A whale stranded on a beach can usually only survive a day or two before succumbing to exposure, said Heidi Pearson, a professor at the University of Alaska Southeast. Pearson has assisted with saving stranded whales in Alaska.
"One of the main concerns is their organs collapsing under their weight," she explained. At sea, whales are more buoyant, but once their bodies are out of the water, gravity begins to take hold. Whales can also suffer from sunburns and dehydration.
Drone footage shot by WWF Indonesia shows a messy tangle of ropes and people struggling to wrangle the whales from shallow waters. Tug boats were used to pull the whales out to shore, but other rescues have been conducted using a modified stretcher and cranes.
By around midnight Indonesian time, five of the sperm whales were successfully floated back out to sea. Several hours later, rescuers were able to move two back to sea. Early this morning, three were pronounced dead, and one of the refloated whales returned to shore and died.
Wildlife officials aren't sure what caused the stranding. Accounts of whales beaching themselves have been documented for centuries, but finding the whales still alive is less common.
"Before we could get our expert to conduct necropsies on the four carcasses, the situation on the ground was getting out of hand as masses started to swarm the area," said Tjiptohandono. He claimed residents wanting to help swarmed the beaches, making it difficult for rescuers and researchers to move the whales and collect samples.
Without having more detailed reports from the carcasses, it's difficult to know exactly why the whales became stranded.
Many float to shore and become stranded when they're sick, said Pearson. Whales have also become stranded after losing their sense of direction.
"A third reason is they're group forming. One member of the group might strand, and the other members will also strand because their bonds are so tight," she said. "Healthy animals will strand because they're good friends."
Whales have also stranded because of sonic or acoustic interference. The animals communicate via underwater sonar and calls, so large vessels or disturbances in the water can interfere with their ability to navigate.
Most frustrating, Pearson conceded, is "sometimes we just don't know."
While a stranding en masse is less common than an individual whale floating ashore, the event in Indonesia is far from the largest involving cetaceans. Eighty-two dolphins mysteriously beached themselves in Florida earlier this year, and the largest stranding recorded took place in 1946, when 835 killer whales beached themselves in Argentina.
In 2016, more than 30 sperm whales beached themselves at the edge of the North Sea. An impressively large amount of plastic was found in their bellies, but the stranding was attributed to a lost sense of direction. Sperm whales have a huge geographic range and are found throughout the world's oceans, but whaling during the late 19th and early 20th centuries reduced their population numbers by more than 60 percent. Today, they're classified as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
WWF will continue to monitor the six rescued sperm whales in Indonesia via drone to ensure they stay safely in the water.