How do you rescue a stranded whale?

On the heels of an announcement that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is considering new ways to respond to whale strandings, we asked officials for some basic information about whales around Long Island and the process of rescuing them.

What kinds of whales are seen around Long Island?

Humpback Grand County, CO
  • Humpbacks are one of the most commonly seen whales in New York.
  • They reach 30 to 60 feet in length and weigh 30 to 40 tons.
  • In recent years, humpback whales have been seen in increasing numbers thanks to successful conservation efforts, according to NOAA.
Sperm Frio County, TX
  • Male sperm whales can grow to be up to 70 feet.
  • They can weigh as much as 59 tons.
  • They can be found in all the world’s oceans except the Arctic region, according to the DEC.
Finback St. Lawrence County, NY
  • Finbacks, also known as the fin whale, can reach approximately 70 feet in length.
  • They can weigh up to 70 tons.
  • They’re some of the largest whales found in New York’s waters, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation website.
North Atlantic Right Lehigh County, PA
  • They can grow up to 50 feet in length.
  • They can weigh up to 70 tons.
  • These whales are the world’s most endangered large whale and are rarely seen, according to the DEC.
Minke Clay County, MO
  • These creatures grow to an average length of 30 feet.
  • They weigh about 10 tons.
  • They can be distinguished from other whales by the white band on their flippers.
Sei Kleberg County, TX
  • Sei whales commonly grow to be 30 to 50 feet long.
  • They typically weigh about 40 tons.
  • These whales can be found in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans, according to the DEC.

How often do live whales strand?

Whale strandings in U.S.


from 2008-2016

Whale strandings in New York


from 2008-2016

Of the 65 live strandings that have taken place from 2008 through 2016, six of the beached whales survived, 36 died and 23 were euthanized, according to NOAA.

The whales in all four New York strandings either died or were euthanized. In 2010, a juvenile humpback became stuck in East Hampton and was euthanized. In 2011 a sperm whale beached itself in Montauk after being wounded by a predator and later died at the site. The following year, a finback died in Breezy Point, Queens, and last November a humpback was euthanized after it became stuck on a sandbar in Moriches Bay.

Not included was the stranding of a northern bottlenose whale in 2015 that beached itself off Long Beach and was euthanized. The northern bottlenose whale does not meet NOAA’s definition of a “large whale.”

What causes whales to strand?

Whales strand for a number of reasons, according to Sarah Wilkin, NOAA national stranding and emergency response coordinator.

They may become entangled in fishing lines or nets. Sometimes they’re hit by ships and become injured, or become sick after ingesting marine debris.

They strand from natural causes too. A whale may have cancer or may be sick with a virus. Whale calves that lose track of their mothers or are abandoned also strand relatively frequently, Wilkin said.

Who’s in charge of dealing with whale strandings?

During a meeting to discuss the humpback stranding in Moriches Bay, NOAA officials acknowledged that communication between state and support agencies needs to be improved and are in the process of developing a statewide Marine Animal Stranding Response Plan.

NOAA oversees a network of local organizations based in coastal communities to respond to stranded marine animals.

In New York, the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, a recently formed nonprofit, will take over for the Riverhead Foundation as the lead organization dealing with live whale strandings, according to NOAA regional stranding coordinator Mendy Garron. Garron said the transition is meant to help deal with the growing number of strandings in the region.

Robert DiGiovanni, formerly executive director of the Riverhead Foundation, will serve as chief scientist for the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society.

How are stranded whales dislodged?

Protocol is to give the animal “one or two high tide cycles” to free itself, Wilkin said. If it’s still stranded, rescue crews can try other methods.

In the case of the humpback whale that stranded in Moriches Bay in November, officials used boats to create a wake, giving the animal more water to attempt to float in.

Whales have in some cases been towed into deeper water, but the process is risky, Wilkin said.

“Towing a whale, particularly tail first, will cause harm to that whale and has the potential to cause very significant harm. It can result in bruising, hemorrhaging and even spinal cord damage,” she said.

Some smaller whales have been freed with the use of pontoons or stretchers, which help float the whale, she said.

What do you do if you see a stranded whale?

Call the 24-hour stranding hotline (631-369-9829) and let the dispatcher know what’s happening and where you are, DiGiovanni said. Be sure to stay 50 yards away from the animal as they can be dangerous, he said.

How are whales euthanized?

Drugs, explosives and rifles have all been used — sometimes in combination — to euthanize whales. The humpback whale stranded in Moriches Bay was administered sedatives and pain killers before it was injected with a lethal dose of potassium chloride. The procedure was performed by Craig Harms, head of North Carolina State’s Center for Marine Sciences and Technology.

Harms helped develop the chemical cocktail as well as a new protocol for administering the drugs, which involves using a garden sprayer connected to a collection of needles. Drugs used in prior incidents often involved barbiturates, which can be hazardous for the environment.

In 2010, a 13-ton humpback whale was injected with doses of drugs and then shot with a .577-caliber rifle. One of the tranquilizer darts, which measured 2½ feet and potentially contained a toxic combination of chemicals, glanced off the whale and was lost to sea.

Western Australia’s Department of Parks and Wildlife use explosives to quickly kill the animals, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported in January. Charges are placed on top of the whale’s head, near the blow hole, and detonated. Officials there say it’s the fastest means of euthanization.

Illustrations: New York State Department of Environmental Conservation; Northeast Pacific Minke Whale Project