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

Save the whales" has become a trendy enough slogan for cartoonist Garry Trudeau to make cruel fun of it in his Doonesbury strip. But conservationists' efforts have finally paid off. Earlier this month the International Whaling Commission voted to bar factory ships (those that process whales onboard) from harvesting all but the small minke whale in 1980. But commercial whalers, who this year will kill the leviathans at the rate of one every 34 minutes—for cosmetics, cat food and transmission oil—are not the animals' only enemy. Last week 170 pilot whales swam ashore at Grand Bank, Newfoundland and died. Not long before, on the Florence, Oreg. beach pictured here, 41 stranded sperm whales met a similar fate.

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."

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