How 1 community saved 100 whales

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By Rachael Bale, ANIMALS Executive Editor

On Monday afternoon, short-finned pilot whales began washing ashore at Panadura Beach in Sri Lanka. By nightfall, there were at least a hundred, by some reports. The mass-stranding quickly became the country’s biggest on record.

It’s also exactly the kind of story I needed to hear today: Local residents, the navy, the coast guard, police, and others managed to rescue almost all of them, AFP reports. Volunteers began trying to push whales back into the water, but more kept washing ashore, they said. Using jet skis lent by a local sports club and small patrol boats, people (pictured above) worked through the night pulling the exhausted whales back to deeper water.

This is the kind of teamwork that gives me hope for humans’ future. Despite the pandemic, people banded together to rescue these giant marine mammals—some weighing more than 6,500 pounds. Not all were saved (one who wasn’t is pictured below), but National Geographic Explorer and marine biologist Asha de Vos, who lives nearby and helped guide rescue efforts, was impressed by her fellow community members. “Honestly,” she told me in an email, “it was the local community who were at it from the moment it happened—and they were working really hard."

Mass whale strandings are not well understood, she said, but pilot whales are notorious for getting stuck on beaches. (De Vos broke down some of what we do know about mass strandings in an Instagram post on Tuesday.)

In this case, as the whales came closer to shore, they got caught in the wave zone. As they tried to swim back out—even with the help and guidance of humans—they’d often get pushed back by crashing waves. “Essentially you have to imagine that it is like being stuck [on] a treadmill—for hours!” de Vos said. The more exhausted the whales became, the harder it was for them to push past the waves.

“It wasn’t an easy task,” de Vos said. But “it was incredible to see the compassion everyone had for the animals.”

Check out photos and videos of the rescue efforts, plus more information, on de Vos’s Instagram page.

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Today in a minute

Mink transmission of COVID-19: Denmark says nearly 400 human cases of coronavirus appear to be linked to sick minks on fur farms in the nation. The government says it plans to cull all 15 million mink because of the risk of mutant mink-to-human transmission. Nat Geo’s Dina Fine Maron reports that Denmark is the second biggest exporter of mink fur, behind China.

In other news: Britain today begins a monthlong lockdown, and Italy sealed off six regions of its country, including its economic heartland, in drastic efforts to stop the COVID-19 pandemic. The United States, meanwhile, recorded a record 103,087 new infections on Wednesday, the Atlantic reports, marking the first time any nation in the world passed 100,000 cases in a day.

Hello again: Last seen a century ago, an evasive species of chameleons has been spotted in its native Madagascar, CNN reports. A targeted expedition found the Voeltzkow’s chameleons, which live only a few months in the rainy season, in jungles that are difficult to access that time of the year. In a research paper announcing the find, the scientists wrote: “Rediscoveries of ‘lost’ species are very important as they provide crucial data for conservation measures and also bring some hope amidst the biodiversity crisis.” (Pictured above, a female Voeltzkow’s chameleon in northwestern Madagascar.)

Doggy doors? That’s what these 8 1/2-by-11-inch openings along a stretch of the reinforced U.S. border wall with Mexico look like. The plan is to put 50 of these little doors in now—and more later—in a 63-mile part of the wall in southern Arizona so that small animals won’t be impeded. But scientists and environmentalists says these openings—the size of a standard sheet of paper—are too small and too far apart to have a significant impact. They won’t help deer, black bears, javelinas, or a type of endangered antelope whose habitat is cut off by the 30-foot-high replacement wall, Nat Geo’s Douglas Main reports. (Above, two javelinas traveling south to the Arizona-Mexico border gave up at the wall after not finding a place to cross.)

Your Instagram photo of the day

Here’s looking at you: The positioning of an arctic hare’s eyes, seen here at sunset, allows the animal to check for predators in virtually all directions without turning its head. If their white camouflage fails them, their backup plan is to run. They are one of the Arctic’s fastest animals, clocking 37 mph at top speed.

Related: Snowshore hares are cute—and also carnivores, cannibals

The big takeaway

Don’t try this, kids: For social media aficionados, the lure of cuddling a predatory wild animal for an Instagram image can outweigh common sense—with dangerous consequences. When Dwight Turner paid $150 to get inside a cage with a black leopard in Florida, he wanted the “full contact experience” sold by the private animal dealer—rubbing its belly, posing for selfies. Instead, he got his right ear ripped in half and a part of his scalp torn, Nat Geo’s Natasha Daly reports. (Pictured above, a wild black leopard rests in a tree in Nagarhole National Park, in India.)

In a few words

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Come back tomorrow for Whitney Johnson on the latest in photography news. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Debra Adams Simmons on history, George Stone on travel, and Victoria Jaggard on science.

The last glimpse

Those big bug eyes: Ogre-faced spiders actually have eight eyes, but their hearing is what astonishes researchers. The arachnids don’t have ears in the conventional sense, but have highly sensitive “hearing” through nerve-based receptors in their legs. From those leg organs, they can hear a surprisingly diverse range of sounds, an ability not seen in other spiders, Liz Langley reports. (Pictured above, an orge-faced spider, with the two massive, forward-facing orbs that give the species its name.)

A footnote: We know that many Americans are stressed about the results of the presidential election, and there are clear differences among us going forward. But there are also things that bind us together. On Election Day, we asked Americans what they love about this country. Kay Wert Minardi wrote that the kindness she experienced biking across the nation “gave me faith in Americans.” Another reader, Juan Carlos Cuadros, looked ahead. “America,” he wrote, “is still in the process of becoming."

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Jen Tse. Kimberly Pecoraro and Gretchen Ortega helped produce this newsletter. Have an idea or a link? We’d love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . Thanks for reading—and for supporting our work.

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