ASSATEAGUE — The efforts of one Good Samaritan helped a beached pilot whale get back into the ocean last Saturday after it had washed ashore on Assateague’s Federal beach. Unfortunately, the story did not have a happy ending, with the same whale again washing ashore hours later and not surviving its third stranding.
Officials commended the bystander’s instinct to help the animal but stressed that when people encounter a beached whale the best option is to contact stranding authorities and wait.
The whale was first spotted by a group of friends returning from an outing on the beach. As they drove along Assateague’s national seashore near the 24-mile marker, Becky Battersby of Federalsburg, noticed the animal grounded in the surf. Her husband, Chris, jumped into the water to help the whale while she called the ranger station. Friends A.J. Plutschak and Amanda Smith also left the vehicle to document the encounter. Numerous other beach-goers reported seeing the whale on and off throughout the day on Saturday.
“We were just driving down the beach getting ready to leave and actually Chris’s wife was the one who saw it. We all stopped and Chris ran out to try to help it,” said Plutschak.
According to Chris Battersby, it was about 4 p.m. when they stopped and the whale was stuck on the beach, badly turned around.
“Its head was facing the beach so I turned it around and then up-righted it,” he said. “Basically, every time a wave came in to help lift the animal up I would just push as hard as I could out into the ocean. It took about 15 to 20 minutes and then it was back out in the water.”
The pilot whale was 15 to 16 feet long and at least 1,000 pounds, by Chris Battersby’s estimation. However, he said that the whale never made him feel nervous or threatened in anyway.
“I didn’t think about getting hurt or anything like that,” he said. “I just kept thinking, ‘gotta get it in the water, gotta get it in the water.’”
Once the animal successfully made it back into the water, the group left their information with the park rangers and headed back to Federalsburg. It was only two or three hours later that Chris Battersby received a call from Assateague rangers asking him to identify the whale he had helped earlier that afternoon. A whale had washed ashore north of the original sighting and rangers were unsure if it was the same one that the Battersbys, Smith and Plutschak had assisted.
Chris Battersby was able to identify it as the same creature. The whale was reportedly able to return to the ocean when the tide came in, only to beach itself again on Sunday morning along the south New Jersey coast. It was reportedly dead when it washed ashore in Wildwood Crest, N.J.
During his initial contact with the whale, Chris Battersby had observed several identifying marks including white sores on the animal’s left side.
“I was able to tell them that it was the same animal, those were the same sores,” he said. “So, unfortunately it was the same animal and, from what I understand, unfortunately it did not survive.”
Fatalities are, sadly, common with beaching, according to Assateague Park Ranger Rachelle Daigneault. In most cases, if an animal runs ashore like the pilot whale this weekend, it is because the creature is already in bad shape and suffering from some sort of illness or injured.
“When one of these marine mammals strands itself, if it’s an individual, the reason that it is stranding itself is because it is in trouble,” said Daigneault. “It is either sick or injured. And, as a result, our own protocol here is that we do not interact with the animal at that point.”
In those cases, the rangers contact the National Aquarium’s Animal Rescue Team. Jenifer Ditmar, the leader of that group, agreed with Daigneault that interacting with a whale before a trained team can show up is not a good idea.
“Being on land is stressful for the animal and they never really see humans so having this weird being around you trying to push you back in is strange for them,” she said. “But it can be very dangerous for people as well.”
Male pilot whales can grow to 25 feet and weigh up to three tons, with females topping out at 16 feet and about half of that weight.
“There’s also a concern about disease transmission. Dolphins and whales are mammals and humans are mammals so there is a chance,” she said, “that if the animal is sick it could transfer a disease to humans and vice versa.”
If any member of the public encounters a beached whale or dolphin, Ditmar advised contacting the nearest park rangers or dialing 911. The National Aquarium would then be forwarded the call and Ditmar’s team would be on the beach, fully equipped, in usually about an hour.
Stranded whales and dolphins are not unusual for Maryland’s coast with Ditmar estimating that six to eight live, beached animals are encountered every year. However, pilot whales are a much rarer sight and one hasn’t been spotted for at least five or six years.