SAVANNAH, Ga. – Roughly two dozen pilot whales beached themselves on and near a Georgia barrier island, leaving 15 dead in the whale species' second mass stranding along the state's coast since July, wildlife officials said Thursday.
Scientists are performing necropsies on the dead whales found on privately owned St. Catherines Island roughly 25 miles south of Savannah for any clues to why the animals may have come ashore, said Clay George, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
"It's too early to say anything about the findings,'' George said in a phone interview.
He said the beached whales on St. Catherines Island were discovered Wednesday morning by a group of volunteers checking sea turtle nests for hatchlings. Others were found on beaches and marshes nearby.
About 26 total pilot whales were spotted in the area, and crews were searching the nearby waters for signs of anymore strandings.
Jason Lee, the program manager of the Georgia Deparment of Natural Resources, was one of the first responders at the scene. He said many of the whales died before anyone saw them.
"We have never seen or heard anything quite like this," Lee said. "They're large animals and there's just really no way for them to get back into the water.
Lee is hopeful the necropsies will lead to answers as to why the whales ended up there.
“We’re looking for biotoxins or if there were acoustic issues such as sonar or seismic testing that may have caused the leaders to become disoriented," Lee said.
It's been just over two months since at least 47 pilot whales swam perilously close the shore on St. Simons Island, where beachgoers scrambled into the water in an effort to nudge the confused whales back toward the open ocean. Three of those whales died.
Pilot whales are members of the dolphin family and can grow up to 20 feet long and weigh as much as 3 tons. Though they typically live about 100 miles from shore, pilot whales are often involved in mass strandings, partly due to their social nature, according to the American Cetacean Society.
George said the beached whales discovered Wednesday are "clearly not related to'' any adverse effects from a capsized cargo ship that remains in the water after it overturned departing the Port of Brunswick on Sept. 8.
Authorities say oil from the ship has reached several parts of Georgia's shoreline, leaving a sheen in marshes and oiled debris on beaches. But George noted the site is at least 30 miles from where the pilot whales stranded.