Thursday, November 2, 2017, started out like any other day: I fed the dog, took him out, checked email, and scrolled through Facebook over breakfast and a steaming, hot cup of java. Those of us who are locals, of course, have our own facebook group, and I noticed a post that someone had made about a whale that had beached itself near the pier. At first, I didn’t think much about it, but as the minutes ticked by, I realized that seeing such a magnificent, monumental animal up close and personal wasn’t something that happened often, so off to the beach I went. Cars were lined up on each side of West Beach Drive and parked anywhere and everywhere, with most of them having two tires on the pavement, which is illegal on this little island, and I feared I would be one of many who would be ticketed for parking that way myself, because ticket or not, I was going to see that whale and offer any help I could! But as luck would have it, I found a legal parking spot at the 25th public access.
It wasn’t hard to tell where the whale was located once I made my way to the dunes because several people were beginning to congregate all in one spot. Locals were in the water holding wet towels on the whale while others stood back and observed from the sand. Marine biologists had been summoned from UNCW, but had not arrived yet and people were very distressed because it was taking them entirely too long to get there. The water started to become tainted with blood, so everyone that was in the ocean got out, which probably wasn’t a bad thing in hindsight, and law enforcement was none too happy that anyone was in the water anyway, even though they had permitted locals to use towels and sheets on the whale to keep him wet until help arrived. Word had also gotten to us from Fort Fisher that it was very dangerous for anyone to be in the surf with the whale: not just for us as humans, but for him, and he was already overly-stressed, anyway.
Photo credit: Toni Anne Porter
“OKI”, as he has become known, wasn’t far offshore at all. In fact, I was surprised to see how close he really was. The tide had been going out, which wasn’t an advantage for him, as the odds of him surviving were already slim. Most of the time when a whale finds its way to the shore, there’s usually a reason for it, and that reason is never good: either it’s been injured, has gotten lost from it’s pod, or is sick and has made its way to shallow water to die, which from what I’ve been told, is rather innate for them.
Therapy Dog Jake came out to see what all the fuss was about! Christopher Johnson is his owner.
Once the people from UNCW arrived, two marine biologists waded through the water to get to the whale. I studied their reactions closely and I could tell by the staid concern on their faces that they didn’t think OKI’s situation looked promising at all. They measured him and somberly walked around him checking for anything obvious that might tell them what was happening. Once they made their way back to shore, one of them explained that the whale was a male juvenile sperm whale, approximately 1-3 years old (which later became 2-3) and that he was very emaciated because it looked like he hadn’t eaten in awhile. They projected his weight to be between 25,000 to 30,000 pounds and he was about 30 feet long. Sperm whales are deep-diving mammals, and the fact that OKI was in the surf wasn’t a positive thing, as they usually live at least 100 miles offshore, with the more realistic distance being 200 miles.
Marine biologists from UNCW assessing OKI
As the afternoon wore on, things began to look bleaker and bleaker. The initial plan was to wait until the high tide came in to see if the whale would be able to free himself and swim back out into the ocean. With every thrash of his tail, each spout of water from the blowhole on the top of his head, and every movement of his body, no matter how small, I held out hope that he would somehow free himself. But high tide never came for OKI, because as the hours passed, things began to look very grave, and eventually, the decision was made to euthanize him because he was bleeding heavily and suffering to the point that the situation was critical. I assumed that people would leave the beach once the injections were given, but most didn’t. In fact, some of them stayed until well after sunset, watching as equipment was brought in to pull the whale out of the water. The faces that were once filled with hope that OKI would survive slowly settled into the knowing that his fate had already been decided long before they knew it was. I, too, had hoped that all of us would witness the young whale freeing himself and swimming back out into the depths of the waters from which he had traveled, but it wasn’t to be and the sadness that hovered over everyone congregated on the shoreline was more formidable than I could ever begin to convey to you just by writing about it. You could feel the sorrow it as it soaked into you from each and every person standing on that shoreline: Heaviness. Despair. Hopelessness. Defeat.
Photo credit: Latane Forester
On Friday morning, I returned to the beach and as I approached OKI, I noticed he was much smaller than I had remembered him the day before. He was tethered at the tail to a backhoe and people were touching him and saying goodbye. Not long after, marine biologists and their crew started the necropsy right there on the beach and we were permitted to observe. I’m not going to tell you it wasn’t graphic and bloody because it was; however, it was also fascinating to watch alongside the familiar faces that had kept vigil the day before. OKI’s fins had to be pulled up and held with a chain that was attached to one of the several pieces of equipment on the beach because they were so heavy. Piece by piece, they methodically cut away the skin, taking pieces to be measured to the other biologists who bagged them for further study. And as the morning turned into afternoon, tissue samples and a host of other things were taken in hopes of finding out what happened to the young whale and a deep, deep hole was dug near the dunes to bury him.
The histopathology reports on OKI’s organs and tissues aren’t back yet, but nothing obvious was found during the necropsy that gave us any information as to why OKI was stranded in the shallow shoreline. His belly was empty, which indicated that the marine biologists were correct when they had mentioned the day before that it looked like he hadn’t eaten in awhile. Sperm whales love giant squid, and the fact that he hadn’t been feeding indicates that he was in distress for quite awhile–long, long before he made his way to our shores here on the island. There’s much speculation that OKI got separated from his pod and because of that, was unable to survive. There are a lot of unknowns, which is disheartening to so many of us who stood vigil with him.
People say lots of things like it’s just the circle of life, and perhaps it is. But what I really love about this community is this: when something bad happens here, the locals always come running to the rescue. Whether it’s to wade into the water fully-clothed to comfort a stranded whale stuck in the surf until help arrives, or whether it’s to surround a family who has lost everything they owned in a house fire, they show up and just do what needs to be done, come what may. It’s a tight-knit group of people who band together and take care of their own, which is a rare, yet remarkably beautiful thing and I am humbled and so honored to be fortunate enough to live amongst these kind-hearted, determined, whale-loving people.
The video was taken by local Danielle Gregory Louviere. If you listen closely, you can here OKI “clicking” after Danielle says the words “click click click”. This is how whales communicate.
Rest in peace, OKI. I hope that there’s an oceanic heaven somewhere and that you are feeding on the finest of squid and contentedly swimming as much as you wish to. And despite the fact that you couldn’t be saved, I hope that in some way, you know that a piece of our hearts went with you.
Photo credit: Latane Forester