I am writing this blog article to put on record my opinions of the whale stranding that happened on 24 March 2013 on Noorhoek beach, Cape Town. Though I was quoted in the press and appeared on various national TV news stations, the press is notorious for either misquoting one or using select quotes out of context therefore take this from the horse’s mouth.
I love Sunday’s, they’re normally my only day of rest but on receiving an sms early morning from Terry Corr, Head of AfriOceans Education, that 20 False Killer Whales had stranded on Noordhoek beach, unbeknown to me the day would turn into an intensive working day that would last till 2am the next morning. While Terry remained as a volunteer to assist one of the whales throughout the day, and Trevor Hutton, an AfriOceans ambassador, supported me in filming the stranding, I was there to passively document the events on camera. As the days events unfolded, however, and as a result of the aggressive manner in which attempts were made to chase me off the beach, and when resisting was threatened with arrest for disobeying a police officer, my involvement grew proportionally and so my list of concerns and questions.
First and foremost I am a conservationist and AfriOceans is the Voice of Our Oceans, this means we speak out for those who cannot. Our interest is always for the animals and what is best for them, whatever that decision might be even if it means the animals must be euthanised. We do, however, insist that when a decision is made to either attempt to save or euthanise an animal it is supported by the correct expertise. In the case of this last stranding, while the goodwill, empathy and selflessness amongst members of the public and NSRI volunteers was clear for all to see, and some officials attempted to do their best, overall those in charge of the day’s events lacked sufficient organization, suitable equipment, training, and expertise. In addition, their response time was poor, consideration and respect for members of the public was lacking as was empathy for the whales, which led to decisions being made, which were not necessarily in the best interest of the whales.
Many questions remain unanswered and in this article I raise only a few, starting with why the whales stranded in the first place. If thorough autopsies were done, and independent autopsies were allowed to be carried out by ourselves, they may not necessarily provide the answer as to why the whales stranded, but they would certainly eliminate possible causes such as blast and explosion trauma. For example, scientists have linked Navy Sonar frequencies to whale strandings. These are intense underwater sound waves that are so loud they carry for hundreds of kilometers and can result in physical trauma, including internal bleeding to the brain, ears and internal organs of whales and other marine life, similar to a severe case of ‘the Bends’ or decompression sickness.
I recall a senior official from the Department of Environmental Affairs, then MCM, telling me some years ago how he was receiving more calls about whale strandings in the Arniston area than he could cope with, and he linked the strandings to the ARMSCOR underwater testing range in the area – there are rumors that there was seismic testing some kilometers out at sea shortly before the recent stranding.
Furthermore, is it mere coincidence that during the week leading up to the stranding the MV SELI 1 wreck off Bloubergstrand in Table Bay was being blasted over a number of days, causing massive explosions so intense that they rattled household windows, set off car alarms and heard all the way in Durbanville, or could this have caused the whales to strand? The South African Navy, the Department of Environmental Affairs, Disaster Risk Management and the City of Cape Town were involved in the blasting. The same departments were all involved in Sunday’s stranding. On the morning of Saturday, 23rd March at Oudekraal, an extension of Table Bay, we saw whale plumes out at sea, very possibly the same pod found the next morning on Noordhoek beach.
It is uncertain at what time the 20 whales beached but they were found early Sunday morning and only five of them were transported to Simonstown where they were released at sea at approximately 6.30pm. Around midday I was told that five had been selected by a vet and biologist who had assessed the animals conditions. Later I heard that the vet was not an expert on large marine mammals, and on questioning volunteers (who were with the whales throughout), I found no reports that a vet had done a proper examination of the whale they were looking after, but they did see a vet standing watching the whale.
Terry, Trevor and myself accompanied the NSRI aboard two SA Navy vessels in their joint effort to release the five whales in False Bay. Unfortunately our celebration and relief was premature while watching the whales swim off as I received an independent alert at 11.30pm that three of the released whales had re-beached at Long Beach, Simonstown. Terry, two members of the public who had found the whales, and myself were the only people present. Terry’s and my attempts to push two of the whales back out to sea failed as the whales kept returning to the beach. A city official who we had called to the scene, arranged for them to be euthanised at 2.30am. This seemed the best option, which at the time after our failed attempts to swim them out to sea, no other help available, and watching them suffering in the surge on the beach, we agreed with. The other two released whales that were found on Monday, one found by Terry, had also re-beached, one later euthanised, the other already dead.
Given the outcome of these animals I have a number of questions related to how they were selected: Was the medical expertise on the day suitable and why did they not perform thorough examinations for selecting the animals other than passive observation as reported? Did the limitation of available transport equipment have anything to do with selecting only five whales? Was selecting just a few done in order to placate the public given the public outcry after the 2009 stranding and the shooting of 44 out of 55 whales? Were all options exhausted before making the decision to kill the rest, and were the attempts to save these few done in the best interest of the whales?
When the decision was made to clear the public away so the officials could euthanise the whales and move the five selected, the officials also reduced the volunteers to six per whale. Many volunteers, some children who had spent hours in the hot sun, caring for a whale were forced to leave. They were not communicated with and when they later found out that the whale they had become emotionally attached to was going to be shot they were justifiably very upset, some breaking down in tears.
Clearly there is much to improve upon but deciding this in the normal bureaucratic manner with no consultation with local NGOs such as ourselves, or other members of the private sector with valuable sets of skills who are willing to assist in the development of improved stranding responses, is a grave error. After initial refusal, and since AfriOceans believes it to be our right as an important stakeholder in South Africa’s marine environment and related issues, we demanded to attend the de-briefing meeting planned this week, and during which improvements for future strandings will be discussed.
Despite the fact that an AfriOceans staff member was a volunteer throughout the day, that we were allowed to witness the release in the bay, that we were the first to be alerted of the three re-beached whales, which we tried to assist on our own because of lack of support from officials given the hour, that we notified an official at midnight, that we found the last whale dead the next day and also alerted officials, we have been denied attendance of the meeting. We have been informed that it is only for officials and those such as the NSRI who were part of the response. AfriOceans has since begun consultations with another international NGO with years of experience and success in dealing with mass whale strandings. We have also submitted a letter to the City of Cape Town and the Department of Environmental Affairs listing our concerns and suggestions for improvements, requesting them to be addressed in their meeting.
Though an official insulted me on the day of the stranding re what AfriOceans can bring, we are a longstanding national NGO, which has been identified as an important stakeholder in coastal awareness, education and training by the Department of Environmental Affairs. Our importance in this regard has also been recognized by SA Minister Trevor Manuel who invited us to attend and provide input at the first meeting of the Global Ocean Commission held in March. In the area of education, training and awareness alone, which is clearly lacking, we could assist greatly and wanting to collaborate with the responsible departments to assist in better mass stranding responses in the future. In the interest of the marine animals and best inclusive practice in our so-called democratic society, it would be wise for the powers that be to accept our involvement on the inside rather than on the other side of the cordon – working together is the best way forward.
Watch my space!
Read Terry Corr’s blog here for his personal account of being a volunteer, caring for one whale all day.