Whale beach saga ends in tragedy

As a police gunman walked from one end of Long Beach, Kommetjie, to the other, shooting whales, groups of rescuers made desperate last attempts to push the creatures back to sea.

But, their efforts were in vain, with most of the false killer whales re-beaching themselves.

Tempers flared and emotions spilled over when the shots rang out, with one woman being frog-marched off the beach by a policeman. Others sobbed, having spent hours in the icy water trying to save the distressed animals.

The gunman was flanked by law enforcement officials and National Sea Rescue Institute volunteers who formed a barrier to prevent people taking pictures.

Mike Meyer, a scientist with Marine and Coastal Management, said that 41 or 42 whales were shot as it was considered to be the most humane option. The whales were slowly dying of organ failure and were suffering.

"We looked at all options including using a helicopter or navy landing craft to get them to sea, but they were not feasible. We even looked at using tugs."

Meyer said false killer whales and pilot whales stranded regularly for no clear reason.

"They are like sheep. If one goes ashore the others follow."

Meredith Thornton of the University of Pretoria's mammal research unit said the stranding could have been a miscalculation of navigation or the dominant animal, usually a female, could have been sick.

About 55 false killer whales, many pregnant females and calves, beached around dawn. Hundreds of people donned wetsuits and took to the water to encourage the whales back to sea.

Some swam far out beyond the breakers with the whales only to watch the rescued creatures turning and riding the waves back to the shore or rocks, where they lay thrashing feebly.

Nick Marnitz, a volunteer with Sea Rescue in Kommetjie, said he swam out with a little one three times, but then it died.

"I put my hand on its chest and could feel its heart beating so hard it felt like it wanted to jump out and then it stopped."

Several people suggested the mass stranding was caused by the navy's shooting in False Bay last week. The Navy's Lieutenant Commander Greyling van den Berg said that while there had been three days of shooting into the sea from the lower north gun battery in Simon's Town, the sound would have been limited. He said it was the last shooting before the start of whale season.

Other experts agreed it was extremely unlikely to have been the cause, particularly seeing Kommetjie is on the other side of the Peninsula.

The whale bodies will be used for research before being taken to Vissershoek landfill site.

One the scene, some volunteers slammed the lack of a co-ordinated rescue plan, saying for three hours it was pandemonium with no one knowing how best to help.

Amber Abrams from Muizenberg, who with three friends worked tirelessly, said they were yelled at by a policeman to get out of the water.

"It was hours before anyone with any knowledge came to tell us how to take care of the whales and to stabilise them."

A policeman tried to pull a woman out of the water because she wasn't wearing a wetsuit.

A man in an official vehicle roared up and down the beach with his siren blaring bellowing through a loud-hailer for people to clear the beach - to no effect.

Edwin Titus from Ocean View received treatment for a suspected fractured knee.

"I tried to stop the whale from rolling but it landed on my leg."

Paramedics treated a near drowning and a rib injury while several rescuers sported bruises from thrashing whale tails.

Carol Brown, formerly with the Durban dolphinarium, said Cape Town was clearly not geared for a mass stranding.

"There should have been rubber ducks and whale stretchers."

Clive Peter, a visitor to Cape Town, described the beachings as a tragedy but criticised the handling of it. He said one official threatened to arrest him for trying to help.

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