KALAPAKI BEACH, Kauai – A mass stranding of pilot whales started at dawn Friday in Kalapaki Bay, fronting the Kauai Marriott Resort.
Two whales died on the beach during the morning hours and a third came ashore and died in the afternoon. Two more were found dead late Friday afternoon. Several others may have been injured when the pod swam into the rocks along the Kalapaki Bay jetty, and officials say more deaths may occur.
While wildlife officials feared additional strandings overnight from the other members of the pilot whale pod, they were encouraged that none were reported early Saturday morning.
All the stranded dead animals were to be removed for necropsies overseen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration marine mammal experts. There were unconfirmed reports that sharks had attacked at least two others after they were injured and bleeding on the rocks of the Nawiliwili Jetty.
Several hundred people including wildlife officials, county fire department and law enforcement crews, tourists and residents crowded the beach to watch.
The whales appeared to have arrived in the bay overnight. Kauai waterman Lance Matsumoto said he first saw the animals about 7 a.m. He said several of them appeared to swim toward the rock jetty that forms the eastern end of the bay, and then were rolled in the surf against the rocks.
“They were just rolling and pounding. There was a lot of blood,” Matsumoto said.
Shortly afterward, two mid-sized whales had stranded on the sand at the eastern end of the sandy beach fronting Nawiliwili Stream. They appeared to be dead.
The largest member of the pod, identified by marine biologists as a mature male, repeatedly approached the shore, but was pushed back to sea by local firefighters, paddlers, surfers and Native Hawaiians.
While the two whales lay dead on the shore during the morning, the large male patrolled along the shore, and other members of the pod could be seen swimming in the center of the bay. Several of the whales still at sea may have been injured on the rocks.
Canoes and powered boats tried to herd the remainder of the pod out of the bay. The marine mammals’ prominent fins and spouts of breathing spray could be seen on the bay.
People on the beach reported hearing of other strandings on the island, but most of those reports could not be confirmed.
Kauai marine biologist Molly Lutcavage preliminarily identified the whales as short-finned pilot whales, Globicephala macrorhynchus. These marine mammals, which are black in color and can range from 6 to 18 feet in length, normally stay in deep water, she said.
Mimi Olry, Kauai Marine Mammal Response field coordinator, said a NOAA marine mammal team flew to Kauai during the afternoon to oversee necropsies on the animals. The necropsies were to be performed at an undisclosed location. No preliminary results were released.
“This is so sad, and so many people are being impacted,” said Mayor Bernard Carvalho, who walked the beach fronting the stranding site. He said the county would assist NOAA crews in any way possible.
“It was a very emotional scene this morning at Kalapaki, and it leaves us very heavy-hearted that we could not save all the whales. But at the same time, everyone on the beach pulled together with a sense of aloha to help the whales in a way that was respectful and professional,” Carvalho said.
Several hundred people crowded the beach and neighboring jetty. Some people approached the dead whales, alternately stroking and embracing them.
There was no obvious indication of a cause for the stranding. Lutcavage, who has performed numerous necropsies on marine mammals and turtles, said it can be extraordinarily difficult to determine a cause. If there is ear damage or infection, however, that should be readily identifiable, she said. Necropsies will test for multiple potential causes.
“We have no indication of a cause of death at this time. Disease and old age are common causes of death for whales, but it’s too soon to know,” David Schofield, NOAA Fisheries marine mammal response coordinator, said in a press release. “Post mortem exams occasionally reveal a likely cause, but more often they are inconclusive, and we must then wait for lab test results. Working with the UH Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, our stranding response partner, we will ensure the post mortem exam and lab tests are thorough and comprehensive.”
One beachgoer who helped push one of the stranding whales back into the surf said he detected a bad smell from one of the animals, as if from an infection.
Pilot whale stranding is rare but not unheard of. Several pilot whales standed in Florida in July. Several hundred pilot whales died after two separate strandings in New Zealand in February. Last year there were mass strandings in Java and India.
Strandings occur occasionally in the Hawaiian islands. In 2004, a pod of 150 to 200 melon-headed whales came into Hanalei Bay, and one calf died. In 2008, an orca or killer whale stranded at Brennecke’s Beach in Poipu, and was euthanized.
These globe-headed whales are members of the dolphin family. They are social animals that travel in groups called pods, which can range in size from a few animals to hundreds. Individual adult whales can weigh from 1 to 3 three tons. They are deep divers, excellent hunters and active predators of fish, squid and octopus.
Schofield said that pilot whales are one of the most social of whales, and that strandings of multiple members of a pod may occur when only one animal is ill or in obvious distress.
Jan TenBruggencate was the science and environment writer and Kauai Bureau Chief for the Honolulu Advertiser. He left to start a communications consulting firm, Island Strategy LLC. His science writing has generated awards from the Hawaii Audubon Society, Hawaiian Academy of Science, The Nature Conservancy, the Conservation Council for Hawaii and others.