- Marine experts say the seismic activity in the Indian Ocean in the past few days likely pushed a pod of pilot whales onto Sri Lanka’s shores.
- Authorities and volunteers undertook a strenuous 15-and-a-half-hour operation to send a pod of pilot whales safely back into the sea.
- Rescuers managed to push 11 pilot whales back into the sea while three died on the shores.
- Recorded incidents of whales beaching up on Sri Lankan shores go back as far as 1889.
Kalpitiya, SRI LANKA: The Feb. 11 beaching of 14 pilot whales in Kalpitiya, about 172 kilometers (107 miles) from the capital, Colombo, may have occurred due to the recent seismic activity in the Indian Ocean, marine experts say.
The whales beached on Sri Lanka’s northwestern Kudawa beach in Kandakuliya, Kalpitiya, prompting 15 and a half hours of strenuous efforts from authorities to send the mammals back into sea.
“We launched efforts to send these whales back into the sea at around 4 a.m. after we received a tipoff from a fisherman,” Upali Kumarathunga, the wildlife ranger who was in charge of the rescue operation, told Mongabay.
“It was challenging for us because the whales kept coming back to the shore even though we kept pushing them back into the waters.”
Kumarathunga noted that about 25 personnel from the Department of Wildlife Conservation, Sri Lanka Navy, Sri Lanka Coast Guard and other volunteers had participated in the operation that came to a close around 7:30 p.m. Colombo time.
While the rescuers managed to send 11 whales safely back into the sea, three had died.
“After completing a postmortem examination on the dead whales, we will report findings to the court and bury the carcasses. However, we intend to preserve at least one carcass. That is still under consideration,” the wildlife ranger said.
Video courtesy of the Sri Lanka Navy.
Causes for the incident
Marine biologist Ranil Nanayakkara, a member of the IUCN SSC Serenia Specialist Group who leads the local conservation NGO Biodiversity Education And Research, cited two main reasons that may have resulted in the pod of whales reaching the Sri Lankan shores.
“Pilot whales travel in pods and often follow their leader. The leader often reaches the shore when it falls sick, and the pod follows it,” Nanayakkara told Mongabay. “I feel one of the whales that had died was the leader.”
Nanayakkara added that recent seismic activity in the Indian Ocean is another reason that may have caused these whales to reach the shore, as these mammals travel using sonar and become easily disoriented. ”
Pilot whales are classified into two groups, as short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) and long-finned pilot whales (Globicephala melas). Nanayakkara identified the stranded whales as short-finned pilot whales, which are often found in tropical waters.
Incidents of this nature have occurred previously in Sri Lanka as well, with the most recent one in 2020, when 120 pilot whales had beached on the western coast of Panadura. In 2017, about 20 short-finned pilot whales were stranded on the eastern coast before being rescued by the navy and local volunteers.
According to Spolia Zeylanica, a journal published by the Colombo National Museum, recorded incidents of whales washing up on the shores of Sri Lanka go back as far as 1889.
Calls for legal action
Hours after the whales had reached the shore, pictures posted online showed kids supervised by adults climbing on top of the mammals as efforts were underway to send them back to sea, prompting outrage among environmentalists and citizens alike.
“Some kids had climbed on top of one of the dead whales. We were handling the whales that were alive. We immediately took steps to remove the people from the area,” said Kumarathunga, the wildlife ranger in Kalpitiya.
He added that an investigation into that was not necessary, as the animal had not been alive at that time.
Jagath Gunawardana, a top environmental lawyer and environmentalist, said it would have been possible for law enforcement authorities to take action over such incidents if the animal had been alive.
He pointed out that suspects can be charged for harassing and abusing an animal.
“When these whales are out of the water, they find it difficult to breathe. Therefore, if people climb on them, it makes things even worse,” Gunawardana noted.
In November 2020, Sri Lanka recorded its worst whale beaching event after navy personnel and volunteers rescued 120 whales and returned them to the sea.
Banner image: Sri Lankan authorities and volunteers engaged in a long and strenuous operation to rescue 11 whales. Image courtesy of the Sri Lanka Navy.