Anguished Scientists Eavesdrop on the Death Throes of 41 Giants Who Lost Their Way
updated 07/30/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 07/30/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT
It took an agonizing two days for them to die. A team of scientists, who had flown in (most at their own expense) from as far away as Florida, could only watch—and listen to the sounds of death. Some of the scientists thought the 12-to-25-ton whales were trying to communicate with one another. "We couldn't get them back into the water," said Bruce Mate, assistant professor of oceanography at Oregon State and coordinator of the team, "and we couldn't figure out a humane way to put them out of their suffering. It would have taken gallons of chemical poisons, which we did not have."
The incident did afford a rare chance to gather data on the imperiled sperm whale. It is one of nine giant species, several of which have been dangerously depleted. An estimated 2.5 million whales once roved the oceans; half now remain.
The stranding, said Mate, was "the first time that scientists had arrived in time to study the animals while they were still alive—or dead but not decayed." The researchers worked up to 22 hours a day, using special whalers' knives to speed the dissection—and collect evidence for an inquiry into what led the creatures onto the beach.
"It was horrible," Mate said.
"People tend to think of scientists as coldhearted, but everybody there was struck by what was happening. We were totally helpless."