Should we still rescue stranded whales even though some may wash ashore dead some days later? The answer is YES.
The October 2017 humpback whale rescue in Brazil was truly glorious. Locals and authorities pull together amazing resources, the heavy machinery, boats, tons of members of the public to help. Everyone cheered when the whale finally swam off and everyone was incredibly sad when the same whale washed ashore days later, dead.
This case, as many before it, sparked intense discussion online. While the rescue was ongoing there were 2 camps: “refloat at all coast “camp and “let the whale die/euthanize” camp. Also as usual, the former camp was mainly the public and the latter, mainly stranding response professionals or rescue members.
Once it became clear that the whale died, the “let the whale die/euthanize camp” was gloating over the confirmation of their “told you so!” sentiment. The “refloat at all coast” camp retreated in defeat and sadness.
This is not the first whale to die after the very labor intense rescue, so why should we continue to rescue even though these whales still die afterwards?
Here are the reasons:
1.Until we have 100% confirmation for the EXACT cause of death obtained via necropsy and forensic examination we should continue to refloat. Additionally, this confirmation should indicate the catastrophic cause that is untreatable via modern medicine. Finally, the cause should not be: a) a result of anthropogenic activities; b) a result of unprofessional, untimely, butchered rescue attempt.
2. Some refloated whales do survive. Until we can determine 100% the difference between the 2 based on diagnostic and data, we should continue to refloat.
3. Until the whale indicates otherwise, we should assume he or she wants to live. This of course might sound silly for some people, but according to #1 of Declaration of Cetacean Rights “Every individual cetacean has the right to life.”
4. Until the whale indicates otherwise or we know more about whale’s reasoning, we should assume that the whale will be able to tolerate pain, discomfort or even suffering if it means a chance to live. The anecdotal evidences support this idea (even though it outrages many rescues and strandings responders). We have been recording cases of severely injured cetaceans (Baby Face in Florida and Surprise in Australia) that had wounds some rescues would consider incompatible with survival. Such wounds are without doubt are very painful and result in discomfort and suffering. Yet these dolphins continue to pull through, refuse to die and their injuries are healing.
5. Stranded whales should not be merely refloated; we should assess their condition, give first aid and/or medication. We should be able to establish the cause of stranding and develop the course of action. Merely pushing the whale offshore might not work in ALL cases (but still will work in some).
6. By LEARNING from our mistakes we will be able to finally figure out how to effectively save stranded whales and achieve near to 100% success rate. By euthanizing whales/ letting them to die we learn nothing. Recent vaquita fiasco illustrates the urgent need to figure how to deal with stress in cetaceans, something that stranded cetaceans often die from. Interestingly, the biggest European stranding network that deals with porpoises has very dismal success rate, which is not surprising because they are all a part of a “let the whale die/euthanize” camp. Had they tried harder to save stranded porpoises, this knowledge could have been used to save critically endangered vaquita.
7. Saving individual whales have population wide benefits as not only it preserves genetic diversity in whales that have been hunted near extinction at one point, but also because cetaceans have culture, the individual could be important for this culture and he or she can share the knowledge that could save others in similar situation.
8. Given how much humans devastated world’s oceans it is our moral obligation to rescue a stranded whale.
9. Rescuing a stranded whale is a righteous thing to do and helps humans to exercise their humanity
Now, the challenge is to communicate this to the professional stranding response community, first responders and decision makers, because the public understands it all already and has always been on board.