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Don Lewis, Massachusetts Audubon Society,
Fox Island Wildlife Management Area

Two Unforgettable Days — 31 July 2002

This story began without me and I wish it had ended the same way.  On Monday a pod of more than 50 pilot whales beached on Chapin Beach in Dennis, about 25 miles southwest of Wellfleet.  The stranding was well covered by the media —live pictures on Fox and MSNBC and CNN.  A great success as 46 or so whales were floated out with the incoming tide and rescued.  At the time I was leading a turtle expedition into Chipman’s Cove for a team from Vassar College’s mathematics department who had partnered with us to analyze our numbers to achieve a population estimate for the northernmost terrapins.  Monday night I went to sleep satisfied with a great day of field research and thankful that the whale stranding had gone so well.

So, when the phone rang a little after six on Tuesday morning, I wondered what was up.  A summer resident on Lieutenant Island heard cries coming from the bay.  She thought she could see whales or dolphins in the distance and had tried to call various outfits, but alas, none were open for business.  So, who you gonna call?  Turtleman!  As I stormed down the stairs to hop into the jeep, I speed-dialed the Cape Cod Mammal Stranding Network to leave a message that the whales may have beached again, but I was going to check it out.

Sure enough.  A large pod of marine mammals were thrashing in the receding tide.  Too distant to reach on foot, so I raced back home for the kayak and launched.  I was overwhelmed by the sight: forty-four pilot whales ranging from large mature animals to young calves.

In a few feet of water the largest adults had already sunken into the ooze, while youngsters swam around from one to the other, nuzzling and squealing in high pitched cries.  The water broiled as these large whales tossed and turned to free themselves from gravity’s grip.

I have a two minute movie shot with my digital camera, which I can’t watch and can’t stop watching.  A calf circles her beached mom.  Like any confused child she seems frantic in her movements and sounds.  She gently nudges Mom’s snout and rubs against her. Then she speeds around her full length and tries again to get Mom to react.

All too quickly the tide dropped, stranding all the animals except the very smallest.  But lower water allowed volunteers to access the area.  First a summer vacationer arrived.  Then two kayakers wandered on the scene.  And as the town awoke and news began to spread, lines of people meandered through the marsh like ants to offer their assistance, at least to help keep the animals wet.  A helicopter hovered overhead, followed by another, and then a single engine plane swooped into the airspace.  By the time the tide had ebbed, the stranding network reached this remote Wellfleet estuary.  But in all honesty, the history of this event had already been written and nothing that man nor the gods could do would unwrite those words.

The whales began to succumb to the two days of stress.  Still, a little over two dozen were floated out with the next flood tide, but they refused to head seaward.  Noisy jet skis and pingers were used to herd the whales out, but instead, the whales pushed the herders back to shore.  They beached again even deeper in the oozy estuary.  And the end had come by twilight on Tuesday evening.

And now we were faced with nearly 50 carcasses and temperatures soaring on Wednesday to near 90.  So, today the Stranding Network and Mass Audubon and the Town of Wellfleet and the U.S. Department of Commerce organized teams of volunteers to haul the dead whales out to sea.  Folks on shore tied lines around the flukes of beached whales.  Kayakers rounded up floating carcasses and hauled them into shore.  They also ferried lines to the larger boats, which hauled the animals out to sea.  It was hard work.  It was hot work.  And, at times, it was a little dangerous, too.  But within three hours the carcasses were cleared from the fragile salt marsh, where they could have contaminated the ecosystem, and placed in the deep ocean.

Thoughts?  Not many.  There’s an overwhelming sadness when these events occur.  Yes they’re natural, and yes they’ve been happening on the Cape forever.  Still, in our hubris, we think we can alter any fate.  And we’re wrong.

So this evening, as the sun began to set over Lieutenant Island, I eased my kayak into Loagy Bay and floated among a contented group of diamondback terrapins.  They were unmoved by the human world buzzing around them.  They focused only on catching the last basking rays and nibbling a few morsels among the dense marsh reeds.  No matter the tragedy du jour, the turtle world continued to spin in a greased groove.