The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is monitoring six pygmy killer whales lingering off Sugar Beach in Kihei, Maui, the same beach where a different group of whales stranded themselves last month.
NOAA experts told reporters on Friday that the new whales have been in the area for about a week.
This comes after the mass whale stranding and re-stranding in August, when NOAA workers were able to coax six of the whales back to sea, also identified as pygmy killer whales. However, four had to be euthanized.
"Based on re-stranding . . . and the fact that there was a large shark in the area, we determined that the best course of action was to humanely euthanize,” said Gregg Levine, NOAA’s contract veterinarian.
“It’s something we take very seriously and it’s with a heavy heart that we have to do this.”
He explained that whales are very social creatures. In some cases, when a sick whale moves to shore for protection, the healthy whales will follow.
David Schofield, NOAA’s regional marine mammal stranding response coordinator, said that may have been the case in August.
“We think we had a sick calf and then maybe some of the individuals may have showed signs of infection but we are still waiting on the results,” he said. “You can, in mass stranding situations, have a few small number of sick animals come ashore and then healthier animals that are part of their social group will follow them ashore, so it’s very sad.”
The sick calf was not counted as part of the 10 stranded whales, but its body washed on shore nearby. A post-mortem exam revealed that the calf was suffering from pneumonia at the time.
All of the deceased whales that were examined had lung abnormalities, empty stomachs and enlarged lymph nodes.
“[It] may indicate that they may have been fighting infection,” said Kristi West, an associate researcher at the University of Hawaii’s Institute of Marine Biology. “We do find that stranded animals have empty stomachs when they’re sick. These animals have to go through an incredible amount of work to feed . . . often sick animals are not capable that.”
The researchers said the new group of whales that they are watching look mostly healthy, although a few could be compromised.
They are keeping a close eye on the whales in case the group also gets stranded. If that happens, Schofield said NOAA will follow the same procedures as it did in August.