Cape Town - It was a race against time from the moment 20 pilot whales beached in Noordhoek and residents and rescue teams scrambled to save the animals’ lives.
But the day ended in despair after nine of the creatures were put down and five others died of natural causes. One whale swam off through the surf during the early morning.
The whales were stranded on Noordhoek Beach in the early morning, but by the time rescuers arrived, four of the whales were already dead.
By 10am, crowds were clumped around the bodies of the remaining beached whales, desperately splashing the dying creatures with buckets of cold seawater and guarding their blow holes from the strong winds which whipped sand across the beach.
“Don’t you have an injection or something to calm the whales down?” a resident begged one of the numerous sea rescue teams.
But while the public – turning out in their droves – had not given up hope, the City Disaster Management spokesman, Wilfred Solomons-Johannes, painted a bleak picture of the animals’ future at the scene.
He said the majority of the whales were in a critical condition.
The way the creatures were positioned on the sand was crushing their lungs, slowly suffocating them.
He said returning the animals to the surf would not help because they would probably run aground again.
An on-site city-appointed vet had declared the best, most humane and viable option was to put down most of the whales using a rifle.
“There is nothing else we can do,” said Solomons-Johannes.
But the decision did not sit well with the most of the civilian volunteers, some of whom had been on the beach looking after the whales for almost five hours.
Ashley Taylor, 13, had been on the beach since 8am tending to a small calf that was part of the herd.
“The whale was fine, she was perfect. There was nothing wrong with her,” she said, choking back tears.
“I can’t believe they are doing this.”
Taylor’s mother, Nicky, said she felt she had been deceived.
When she arrived at the beach with her daughter they were told to help move the whales further up so they could be taken away to be treated and released.
“I was shocked to hear they were going to be put down.”
Lesley Rochat, executive director for Afrioceans Conservation Alliance, said the decision to put down the whales was premature.
“As always the decision to put them down was made too quickly. I think a lot more of these (whales) could be saved.”
There were shouts of outrage as metro police began to order people off the beach. Some angry volunteers refused to leave.
“They want us to move so we don’t see them shoot the whales,” shouted conservationist Trevor Hutton.
A crowd of angry volunteers began to chant: “Don’t kill the whales,” but metro police continued to chase people from the beach.
By 3pm, none of the animals had been put down.
By 5pm, the remaining nine whales on Long Beach were put down as loaders got into position to move them.
Some of the healthier whales were loaded on to the backs of trailers to be taken to the Simon’s Town naval base, where they were released.
National Sea Rescue Institute spokesman Craig Lambinon said five whales were eventually taken from the beach and released just outside Simon’s Town.
“One of them has already rebeached in Simonstown," Lambinon said later.
"It is still alive and we are trying to save that one but its health has also deteriorated quite substantially."
"At last sight at around 7pm they (the rest) were witnessed by following boats to be swimming strongly in False Bay."
Cape Argus, Sapa