|General Care of Beached Whales|
If larger whales are stranded far from the water, the process involves two major steps. The first involves dragging it backwards across the beach to the water edge. There, the towing harness is adjusted so the whale can be towed forward during the second step in the water.
This concept was invented and Engineered by August 1992. This presentation was first placed on the Internet in June 1997.
If the larger whales are stranded near the waterline, the first step may not be needed, or it could be used for pulling it backward just a few feet to the shallow water, where the forward towing harness arrangement is then used.
Very large whales must be treated in a special way, but the same general concept can be applied. They will be discussed later.
Rearward pulling arrangement for while the whale was still on the beach.
One part is necessary for rescuing any large whale. A corset-like sleeve is necessary which would be wrapped around the whale's tail just forward of its tail flukes, at the narrowest point. This corset is necessary to spread the pressure of the pulling force over a wide area of the whale's skin. This corset has attachments for a number of small ropes or cables that go to a pulling ring, where a large towing cable may be attached. (See drawings)
For situations where the whale must be dragged a significant distance across a beach, a second part is necessary. A belly-pad is necessary to both minimize the dragging abrasion on the whale's belly and to provide a second pulling point to attach the pulling cable to. Ideally, this pad would be a thick piece of rubber that is about the size of the whale, laid just behind the whale on the beach. (Again, this is necessary when an extended drag across a beach is necessary, and may not be necessary for short-distance drags.)
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As soon as the whale was in a few inches of water, the harness configuration is adjusted. The corset is not moved or released. Only the pulling ropes are moved.
Forward pulling arrangement used after the whale is in the water.
In the water, the belly pad would have fallen away and the whale's body will be partially supported by buoyancy. That enables the easy addition of the new "alignment belt" seen in the drawing. This belt makes sure that the whale remains forward facing in the water and does not accidentally get turned around. Forward towing in the water is important, to allow the whale to assist in maintaining its orientation and stability, and to reduce its anxiety.
If a boat is used, a normal boat should not be used. Wave action on the boat would cause it to rock back and forth, effectively jerking on the towing cable. A special flat-bottomed, very low-draft, barge-style boat should be used. This boat needs to have very small draft so that it can be brought to a location seaward of the whales, where the water is probably very shallow. This small boat is provided with an electric winch and one-fourth mile of cable. It also must have a method of firmly fixing itself in position, better than a normal anchor. This barge basically digs itself into the bottom of the shallow sea with a hydraulic arm.
When the boat's cable is then attached to the corset's pulling ring and straps, the whale would first be dragged backwards about its own length onto the belly pad. At that point, the pulling is briefly paused and the pulling cable (or ring) is also attached to a harness on the belly pad. From that point on, the belly pad acts as a "sled" and the pad and whale are slowly and smoothly dragged rearward up to one-fourth mile to the ocean. Except for that first twenty feet of pulling, very little stretching stress is imposed on the whale's spine, and rocks on the beach cause no skin abrasion. If the tides have caused the sufficiently deep waters to recede farther than one-fourth mile out, a second boat and winch anchored one-fourth mile farther out could take over the pulling. Alternately, a tug-of-war rope could be attached to the pulling ring and a group of men could provide the power, as long as they pulled smoothly and didn't jerk the rope.
Even if the water had receded beyond the horizon, it should still be possible to get the whale back to deep water, WITH NO ADDITIONAL INJURY. A single barge/boat could eventually be provided with four or six winches such that it could simultaneously drag several whales at a time out to sea. Since the whole procedure should take less than an hour, a different group of the beached whales would shortly be pulled back to sea. All of the members of the pod, including the larger, older ones, would therefore have a valid chance at survival.
At one end (the front) is mounted an electric winch, solidly attached to the body of the boat. The winch is filled with 1,300 feet of 5/16-diameter cable. This size cable is rated at 2000-pound lift capacity, which is sufficient for horizontally dragging whales of up to about 10,000-pound weight. The cable weighs 220 pounds. At the opposite end (back) of the boat is mounted a gasoline-powered alternator to provide electric power for the winch.
Also attached to the sidewalls near the back end are pivot points outside the boat. Just outside and along the sidewalls of the boat are movable steel beams attached to those pivot points. These beams are solidly attached to a vertical flat steel plate just outside across the front of the boat. This construction is similar to a farm-tractor's hydraulic scoop arm, or the same mechanism on a Bobcat mini-payloader. Instead of a scoop, a vertical steel plane is used. A small hydraulic pump and system does not raise it above the boat, as in the tractor or Bobcat. Instead, it pushes the vertical steel plate down into the mud of the sea bottom just forward of the location of the boat. This boat-wide anchorage fixes the boat in place far more securely (and relatively rigidly) than any standard anchor would.
This last feature is to minimize potential injury to the whales. If the boat were allowed to rock with the action of the waves, the tension in the towing cable would continuously vary, with a pulsing or jerking pressure on the cable and whale. In significant waves, this could potentially cause serious injury to the whale and might even cause the cable to fail. It would certainly cause extra discomfort to the whale, possibly causing it to panic and start thrashing. Such a situation would increase the chance of injury for the whale and the personnel in the vicinity. Ensuring that the pull and the movement were as smooth and constant as possible should minimize this possibility. It should also contribute to keeping the whale as calm as possible.
This corset needs to have two special features. First is a pair or set of towing straps attached to it, with a number of attachment points, such that the force of towing would be distributed as evenly as possible over the area of the corset. It is logical that two opposite towing strap sets would be advantageous so the towing force does not present an asymmetric force on the whale's backbone structure.
The second special feature of the corset involves two safety releases related to the joining seam of the sections of the corset. These joining points would have a special structure, the 'pins' mentioned above. There are two eventualities that must be provided for. One is if the whale starts thrashing and the corset must be quickly removed. This could easily be provided by having a sliding, removable, hard plastic pin be the way the sections of the corset are held together on one side. This pin would be exactly like a 'piano hinge' pin, just slid through alternating loops in the inner edge of the corset sections. This removable pin would be attached to a standard nylon ski rope. An attendant could remain at a safe distance away, holding the other end of that rope loosely. If conditions merit, he could jerk on the rope to pull the pin out, thereby immediately separating and releasing the corset.
Assuming success in towing the whale out to deep water, the same person could then jerk on the rope to release the corset and free the whale.
The other eventuality that must be provided for, could happen later in the procedure. Once the whale was in moderately deep water, it might lose patience in the towing process. If it then thrashed its tail to try to develop forward thrust, it could conceivably snap the towing line (more about this later). If that happened and the whale then navigated to deep water, it might still have the corset wrapped around its tail. That would be a real disadvantage in the wild. If a second (parallel, opposite) corset joining pin were made of a material that would slowly dissolve in a day or two in seawater, the corset would eventually fall away out in the ocean, and the whale would be totally free.
For several years, I have speculated on some sort of inflatable feature for the corset. The main concept that I keep thinking about is the blood pressure 'cuff' that a doctor wraps around your arm. He inflates it a lot, and he actually momentarily stops the blood flow, which we would have to carefully avoid. We would need to make sure not to apply very much pressure. The main time when we would have to apply the greatest pressure in that area is while the whale is being dragged onto the belly pad. After that point, very little pulling force would be applied to the whale by the corset, as the belly pad would be being dragged. The advantage of this feature, as I see it, is an even better distribution of the pressure on the whale's skin due to the pulling force. This idea may only be necessary for the very largest whales.
Dragging the whale on its belly the whole distance to the sea would certainly severely abrade its ventral skin. To avoid this, and to reduce the continuous towing tension on its spine, the whale would first only be dragged rearward about its own length, onto the smooth belly pad laid out behind it on the beach. Once on this pad, towing would momentarily pause while an additional short cable was connected between the towing cable (probably at the pulling ring) and a towing loop on the belly pad. That cable would be tensioned such that the majority of the towing force is now on the pad, with only one-third or less remaining on the whale itself. Some towing force is probably necessary so that the whale is aware that it is not yet free and cannot yet swim away.
This would greatly reduce abrasion of the belly skin from dragging, and also minimize the chance of a vertebral injury during the subsequent towing procedure.
At the start of this stage, the entire weight of the whale causes frictional drag along the beach surface. Once the whale is on the belly pad, during most of the dragging, the belly pad is basically pulled, with the whale riding on top of it. Once the whale is dragged slightly into shallow water, buoyancy on its body will lift some of its body weight up off the belly pad.
At the point of having the whale at the water's edge, the towing ropes would be rearranged to tow it forward in the water. A whale being towed backward through the water represents several problems. First, it has never experienced anything like moving backwards in the water ever before in its life, and it may panic and start thrashing. Second, the whale will want to and needs to be able to maintain its upright position with its flippers, which it may not be able to do when being pulled backwards in the water. If it should accidentally roll over, where its blowhole gets unexpectedly submerged, it might drown. For these reasons, the pulling corset is left where it was, but the towing ropes are reconnected (as in the second drawing above) to a towing ring in front of the whale. This would require adding a narrow 'belt' at this time around the mid-section or rear-head. Since the whale would be partially floating now, it should be possible to slip the 'belt' under its body. That belt would have loops for the new towing ropes to pass through (but not be attached to). This would allow the orientation of the whale to be maintained forward, while still pulling (actually now almost pushing) it FORWARD with the tail corset. This belt really has no function except to keep the towing ropes from getting tangled and to keep the whale from getting turned backwards. This additional 'belt' would need the safety breakaway provisions like the corset.
Meanwhile, a person on shore has (carefully) attached the corset around the whale's tail. When the winch hook is available, it is hooked to the corset. Concurrently, another attendant rakes the beach behind the whale and unrolls the belly pad onto the beach there. Radio or cel-phone communication will alert the boat attendant once everything is ready. The winch is started, which drags the whale slowly backwards. Once it has slid rearward its own length onto the belly pad, the winch operator (on the boat) is told to pause while the additional cable is attached to the belly pad. Then the winch is started again, dragging the belly pad and whale across the sand and shallow sea. At a speed of 45 feet/minute (1/2 mph), a whale could be dragged the one-fourth mile (1,300 feet) in about 30 minutes. Releasing this whale, and taking the towing cable back to the beach, means that efforts at recovering another whale could begin in another 15 minutes or so. That means, that with a single boat and a single winch, a whale could be saved each hour. The boat could also have more winches mounted, dragging several whales at a time.
The tail corset could have a radio controlled breakaway link installed. At some point that the whale became confident that the water was deep enough, it would certainly start to try swimming away. The link could be triggered then. Also, it could be triggered if anything unexpected happened that might endanger the whale or the crew members. I am personally very familiar with Murphy's Law, and I am usually tempted to keep everything as simple as possible, so fewer things could fail. I personally prefer the manual methods described above.
If deep water was more than 1,000 feet away, two or more such boats could be used. The first pulls it the first 1,000 feet. Then it gets hooked to the winch hook of the next boat 1,000 feet farther out. In this scenario, the first boat might be entirely beached during the activity, until the next high tide.
There is one dark possibility. There have been cases documented of pods of whales that somehow survived and got themselves back to deep water at the next high tide, only to swim back in again to get beached again. This seems like a real possibility in this situation of saving one at a time. Whales are extremely socially attached to their pod. If a few of the whales have already been dragged out to sea, they would see their comrades still on the beach. While we are dragging others of the pod out to sea, the ones already saved might beach themselves again.
Several possible approaches seem possible:
The boat may not even be necessary, if the 'tug-of-war' approach is used. In that case, only the corset and ropes and cables would be expenses. The concept is simple enough that these notes could represent rough plans to build the necessary parts described above. An e-mail to me could clarify any specific details.
I'm not trying to profit from this. Actually, I personally think that would be wrong! I have no hidden agenda here. The whales deserve the application of any technology we can come up with. This project would be a good start at finding a non-injurious, low-trauma way of saving larger whales. It is meant as an attempt to apply engineering and technology to this problem. Hopefully, it would work exactly as presented. But, even if total success was not initially had, valuable new knowledge toward finding improved, modified methods of saving beached whales would certainly be gained.
Even without completely preparing all of the parts of this system ahead of time, it might be possible to apply creativity in using locally available objects and materials to accomplish a crude version of this approach. The centrally important parts are the three basic components:
Whales heavier than that may already have broken ribs due to their own weight, and dragging it back even 20 feet might do further damage to those ribs. For such very large whales, the same method could be tried, primarily since no better way has yet been presented. I have some preliminary thoughts for such very large whales (see below), but it appears fortunate that most beached whales are well under 10,000 pounds.
General Aiding of Beached Whales
It is recognized that great frustration is present in the many people who witness such beachings, and there is desire to at least do SOMETHING for the whales. Volunteers often splash water onto such whales. This is a good idea, but if this is done, make sure that water is not dumped down into its blowhole, otherwise the whale might drown (it breathes air because it is a mammal and not a fish, and that is effectively its nostril). If water is to be splashed around its eyes, a small amount of clean, cool fresh water might be used, instead of seawater. When the seawater evaporates, it leaves salt crystals that can scratch the cornea of the eyes. If clean fresh water was used in the area around the eyes, it would actually wash away previous salt crystals and minimize such scratching. Don't rub or touch the eyes themselves but just pour a little fresh water on the skin ABOVE the eyes and let it flow downward. Think about how you would want your eyes treated in a similar situation.
Splashing water onto a beached whale has two major benefits. First, the skin can be kept from drying out too much and deteriorating. After all, a whale normally is always underwater, so its skin is not used to being exposed to drying wind and air and sun.
Second, splashing water onto a beached whale can assist it in maintaining its internal body temperature. On a sunny day, a whale on a beach can quickly get overheated. Whales cannot sweat like we do in that situation. Their normal method of controlling their body temperature is by sending their blood through the thinner parts of their bodies (fins, flippers, tail flukes) where the normally adjacent cool seawater cools it down. That means that there is special value in regularly splashing water over those parts of the whale.
By the way, a whale should not be rolled onto its side or back. If it is necessary to access underneath a beached whale, a substantial sized whale should not be rolled sideways further than about thirty degrees. If ANY rolling is necessary, remember how big and strong and powerful a whale is and that it may panic at such an effort. Also, a whale should NEVER be lifted or pushed by a bulldozer or any other heavy equipment, and it should never be lifted by cables. Such efforts might seem good, but they have invariably guaranteed the death of the whale.
Whales are rather sensitive creatures. In addition, beached whales are already filled with fear and panic. If there are people present who are panicking or yelling or screaming, they should be taken away from the whales. Calm, friendly, gentle conversation is a good guide when near the whales. In addition, almost any machinery (especially noisy machinery) tends to upset beached whales, so that should be avoided if possible, and noisy cars or motorcycles or motorboats should also not be allowed near the whales.
If an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) is present, there might be two other ideas to consider. When whales (particularly very large whales) have been stranded for an extended time on a beach, they sometimes get cramps when they are finally released in the water, and this sometimes represents a critical problem. It appears to be related to dehydration and internal electrolyte level imbalance, just as in human athletes. An EMT might attempt to determine the condition and mood of a whale. If it is a whale that is expected to be saved, and that substantial dehydration has occurred, it might make sense to consider trying to arrange an IV of Ringers' solution to add electrolytes to the bloodstream and to counteract the dehydration that is certain to have occurred. This is essentially the same treatment that humans and animals receive after severe dehydration. In an extreme case, where a very large whale that is seriously weakened is going to be the subject of a rescue attempt, in addition to such an IV, it might be worth trying to insert a tube down the blowhole, so pure Oxygen might be metered into its lungs. The greatly improved oxygen content of the bloodstream should immediately result in better alertness and better general spirits and physical condition. Only a trained EMT or Veterinarian or Doctor should attempt the two suggestions of this paragraph, and only for whales that are particularly distressed, depressed and/or dehydrated.
In the spirit of attempts to save the whales, a group of volunteers might consider trying the improvisations mentioned above. After all, SOME effort seems better than just watching them lie there dying. The alleged "experts" haven't yet come up with a consistently successful method of saving larger whales, but they have generally gotten really good at saving the smaller ones which can be carried. (I often wonder whether an immature lone baby whale has much chance of surviving without the guidance and leadership and protection of the older members of the pod. It wouldn't know where the feeding areas would be or many other important things.)
Different Sizes of Beached Whales
This discussion has regularly referred to 'small' or 'large' or 'heavy' whales. It's time to clear up this area!
Someone on the beach is certain to have a pocket calculator.
Someone else should have a ruler. After these are found, do this:
Now you have an approximate idea of the weight of the main part of the whale. You can estimate an additional amount to add to account for the snout and tail. (Maybe 1200 kg or 2600 pounds for our example whale.) It will then fit in one of the following three categories:
(up to about 700 kg or 1500 pounds)
These whales are generally young and robust and they even heal rapidly from whatever damages occurred to them during the beaching. Nearly any method can be used (except using metal cables or bulldozer scoops) to rescue them. The most common and successful method is to have a large 'stretcher' or 'litter' available, where a number of people can surround the whale and lift and carry it to the water. Obviously, it is important to not trip or drop the whale, and I recommend carrying it only a few inches above the ground because of that possibility, or in case the material of the litter would tear.
These small whales may be rolled partially up on its side without too much danger of breaking any ribs, in order to get the litter underneath it.
There are several other considerations with this method. Keep in mind that the whale is in the middle of an incredibly traumatic experience, and it is likely filled with fear and panic. If a whole bunch of noisy, scary people suddenly come toward it, it is bound to upset the whale even more. Someone should take charge and instruct everyone beforehand about this subject. A few people might first casually approach the whale, and touch or pet or splash water on it. Give it a little time to get used to having a bunch of humans around it (that has never happened to it before!) Roll it gently. Speak calmly to each other and to the whale. Try to instill a happy, upbeat mood in all the people, and that should help the whale, too.
Next, I recommend selecting a carrying crew that are all about the same height, such that their stride length is about the same. In addition, while the carrying is proceeding, I'd suggest the whole carrying crew to stay in step with each other. These two considerations should minimize the jostling and shaking of the whale during its ride.
Someone could be directing the footwork, but it should probably be done relatively quietly, and not like a Marine Drill Sergeant screaming! I'm tempted to think that a 'happy' singing, marching song, like Frere Jacques might be a nice idea. It would keep everyone in step, it would inspire happiness and hope in the carriers, and, hopefully, likewise in the whale.
If it is possible to carry more than one at a time, if possible, it would be good so the whales could see each other and that their relative positions stay reasonably consistent. Again, the idea is to reassure the whale that something good was happening, even though it was unknown and scary.
(700-3000 kg or 1500-7000 pounds)
The method described in the bulk of this essay seems most practical and likely to be successful for whales of this size.
(over about 3000 kg or 7000 pounds)
These very large whales often represent a whole series of additional problems in attempting a rescue. Often, just in the process of becoming beached, their ribs may break under their own body weight, and/or internal organs may be injured or damaged. Generally, these very large whales are also the very oldest, so they are more frail due to their age. Additionally, their greater body weight often causes them to settle deeper into the sand on the beach, so any towing effort would need extra force to initially drag it uphill out of that depression.
These largest whales are likely to be especially important to the social structure of the pod, and maybe even its survival. These are the members of the pod who are most likely to know where the migration routes are and where the best feeding grounds are, and what areas to avoid or go toward. It seems especially important to try to save these largest of the beached whales. Without their knowledge and experience, the remainder of the pod would be at a great disadvantage regarding survival, both of the individuals and of the society of the pod.
However, rescuing them is especially difficult. Even if such a whale did not incur serious injuries during the initial beaching, if we tried to roll it up onto one side to put anything under it, its entire weight would be concentrated on one set of ribs instead of both, greatly increasing the chances of us breaking some. Even with our corset arrangement, pulling rearward on the spine with a force of more than 3,000 pounds might do permanent damage to the spine or spinal cord, and that process might also break ribs from the sliding action along the beach.
The approach that seems to be the only one with much chance of success for these very heavy whales is to somehow get the whale to be at least partially supported by flotation in water. Accomplishing this would greatly depend on the local conditions. For example, if the whale was only 30 feet from the waterline, and on the beach one foot higher than the water level, it might be possible to have a bunch of volunteers use hand shovels to dig out the beach behind (NOT UNDER) the whale down below the waterline. That would result in a fairly quickly made TRENCH a little wider than the whale's body, all filled with water to at least some depth, maybe a foot or two. Each wave that would come in would then run up this new trench toward the whale. So the sand would loosen a little more and make it even easier to flatten out the bottom at a constant water depth. This would be continued up to NEAR the tail of the whale, but not so close as to possibly get hit by the tail if she thrashes it.
In addition, fairly deep trenches would be dug on both sides, say 3 feet away from the entire length of the whale. There would effectively be a 'moat' around the whale when this was completed. Natural wave action would cause water to flow in and out of this moat, gradually taking sand away each time, even sand that is underneath the whale. Over a period of time, the whale's body would settle down into the trench, and hopefully be entirely supported by water flotation.
Depending on the consistency of the sand, either of two things might then occur. Very uniform and porous sand might gradually erode the entire area under the whale, slowly lowering its body until it was finally partly or completely supported by flotation, at which time, our corset method should work fine. The other possibilities are less pleasant. If the sand only eroded around the very edges, the whale might eventually be overhanging a small pedestal of sand. Because the heavy body weight would now be resting on a smaller area, the localized pressure on the skin and ribs would be greater than before, and additional injury seems likely.
The third possibility may be the worst. A beach is not likely to have entirely fine sand. As that fine sand is washed away, the weight of the whale might start becoming supported on a few larger rocks, which would be a horrendous problem. The concentration of weight on such a small area would certainly be likely to break ribs or other bones. If this digging process is pursued, it is IMPERATIVE to always stay alert to the existence of rocks under the whale. As soon as they are noticed, those rocks must be dug out and removed. With that done carefully, this method should be a realistic method where ONLY SHOVELS may be necessary to save even a very large whale!
The digging out and trenches and moat approach seems to have promise, but it remains to be seen if we can find a way to maintain a relatively equalized pressure over a large area under the whale. If a way can be found to get a water level up to the top of the sand, the resultant flotation effect would be ideal, distributing its weight over a VERY large area. If the digging of fairly deep trenches is not practical, then I do not presently see how that could be done, without the immediate availability of high volume water pumps and some method of lining the outer walls of the trenches, with the idea of making a temporary swimming pool under the whale. Such a pump might also be used to spray away sand from under the whale, but again, it would have to be done equally and uniformly, so the entire weight of the whale was not ever concentrated on some small area.
If such a pump was available, it also represents another complication. The noise and vibration from a gasoline-engine driven pump is very upsetting to stranded whales, so that equipment should be kept as far as possible from the whale.
If this very heavy whale was stranded a long distance from the shoreline or much higher than sea level, no one yet has a plan for that. Digging a very long and very deep trench seems to be about the only card that we have available, especially in really remote locations of beachings. Somehow, the whale would need to be lowered IN PLACE, without pulling, pushing, or rolling it, until a substantial part of its body weight was supported by flotation. A moat could be tried around it, but it is unclear as to how the sand actually under the whale might actually then be removed without causing localized pressure points.
People who think of such moats or swimming pool concepts do not seem to realize that when you pour a bucket of water on a sand beach, the water INSTANTLY disappears into the sand! The porosity is extremely high. And, alternately, there is no credible way to get the plastic FLOOR of such a swimming pool under a 10,000 pound whale, without seriously injuring it in the attempt.
Under no conditions can such a large whale be moved or rolled in any manner, until and unless a good proportion of its body weight is supported by buoyancy from the seawater. That clearly seems to require a first step of directly lowering it in place. Some method must be devised to accomplish this.
There are some whales that are so huge that it is nearly inconceivable to try to save a beached one. To give you an idea of just how big some of them are, a Blue Whale was once estimated at 260,000 pounds! (That's roughly one hundred automobiles!) (Remember that WE are considering whales over 7,000 pounds to be "large"). In the past, there has been virtually zero success at rescuing ANY whales of what we are calling Large. This discussion is meant to help develop organized methods that might some day become successful enough where it makes sense to even TRY to save a Blue Whale. But that's likely to be a good ways off!
I intend to be regularly available (by e-mail) for guidance on any such efforts. It distresses me that so many whales have died since I first developed this method. I feel absolutely certain that, as soon as even one whale is saved with this method, publicity on that effort will encourage many others to adopt similar approaches and many more whales will then be saved.
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C Johnson, Theoretical Physicist, Physics Degree from Univ of Chicago