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3 pilot whales die after ‘exceedingly rare' St. Simons Island strandings

Biologist: 'Something went wrong' that led pod of 50 too close to shore

VIDEO: Three pilot whales died after a pod of 50 came too close to shore, with St. Simons Island beachgoers joining lifeguards and Georgia wildlife crews in the water to try to stop the large marine mammals from beaching themselves.

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Three pilot whales died after a pod of 50 came too close to shore Tuesday, with St. Simons Island beachgoers joining lifeguards and Georgia wildlife crews in the water to try to stop the large marine mammals from beaching themselves.

Clay George, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said it is "exceedingly rare" to see pilot whales, which are members of the dolphin family that can weigh as much as 3 tons, become stranded in Georgia.

"Something went wrong with the pod of pilot whales days or even maybe weeks ago that led them to end up this far from their natural habitat," George said Wednesday. "They are very social and they live in groups of 30, 40, 50 whales, and so if one animal gets sick or something happens to it, they lead the group astray. These whales should usually be 100 miles offshore. It's very rare for us to see pilot whales strand in Georgia."

Harbor pilots spotted a large group of whales in the nearby shipping channel early Wednesday, and by mid-afternoon, they were swimming in deeper water about 6 miles from shore, George said.

He said conservationists from the National Marine Mammal Foundation who followed the pod by boat Wednesday counted at least 45 whales, which they described as vocalizing and swimming actively. George said he was "cautiously optimistic" they would keep moving out to sea.

UNCUT: Georgia Department of Natural Resources gives update on status of whales |
Video shows pilot whales beaching themselves
WATCH: Biologists working to determine why pod of pilot whales came too close to shore 
IMAGES: Residents try to rescue pilot whales stranding on St. Simons Islan

Three pilot whales became stranded Tuesday and died, one of which was euthanized by officials, at three locations along St. Simons Island -- Coast Guard beach and close to the lighthouse, both of which are near the King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort, as well as at the south end of St. Simons Sound.

"This morning, the whale was lying in the water," resort employee Brad Groover said Wednesday. "The DNR and cops came, drug it out."

Click photo above for gallery courtesy of Betty L. Hayes Photography

One of the whales that did not survive near the King and Prince resort had been attacked by a shark.

"Typically, we see that that’s a postmortem finding," George said. "It likely floated around deceased in the water, where it was scavenged by sharks. We don’t see at this point anticipate that was the cause of its death."

The Georgia DNR had removed all three from the beach by Wednesday afternoon. George said necropsies were planned to determine if the whales were sick and look for other clues to why they may have come ashore -- such as if the whales had plastic in their stomachs, if they had ingested fishing gear or they had been exposed to acoustic noises like bombs or sonars.

A viral video, posted by Dixie McCoy and shared by numerous News4Jax viewers, captured the massive rescue effort Tuesday, showing volunteers splashing water onto whales near the shore and, in some cases, trying to push them away from the beach. 

Beached Whales East Beach SSI, GA

East beach St. Simons Island, GA

Posted by Dixie V. McCoy on Tuesday, July 16, 2019

George said most of the whales came within 50 feet of shore, and several tried to beach themselves repeatedly. Beachgoers helped lifeguards and wildlife officials keep most of the pod in the water.

"I think I saw a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence yesterday when the whales came up," said Lee Dorough, who was visiting from Nashville with her family and helped push the whales back out into the ocean. "My daughter-in-law came up. She was on the kayak. At first, she thought they were dolphins. Then she noticed, you know, they have fins and they were actually whales. Then we heard them scream that there were two up on the shore. There were 30 in that pod, and they all went running up there. My son and my granddaughter plus so many people were trying to get them out to sea."

A helicopter searched by air Wednesday for more stranded whales and found none, said Georgia DNR spokesman Rick Lavender.

About the Authors:

Multi-media journalist with a special interest in Georgia issues.