Carriacou, Grenada, West Indies – When the Wildlife Rescue Team received the call on April 12, at 4 pm, they leapt into action and sailed to the site in less than half an hour. What they did not know though was that they were in for a whale of a time!
A nine-foot long Melon Headed Whale, weighing about 350 lbs, was in distress in the shallow waters of Craigston bay. The Penopocephala Electra, or little killer whale, displayed clear signs of panic and distress, swimming frantically in tight circles, emerging to breathe every three or four seconds, shaking body motion, as well as diving down hitting the nose violently on the sandy floor of the shallow bay and getting more and more into the shallow beach area. It seemed to be alone there.
As the team entered the water from the rescue boat, the whale started weaving circles around the three divers and another swimmer, the caller, for almost an hour. After observing its behaviour, the three members of the team decided to make physical contact with the whale, by intercepting its motion patterns and diving fast alongside.
The first to make contact in the gentlest of manners was the youngest of the team, Adam Sewall, 18, volunteer, an experienced swimmer and a professional lifesaver. After his touch, the whale perceptively slowed down and started swimming closer and closer to the divers as if to encourage more contact.
Within minutes the rescue process took a surprising turn: in this amazing underwater carousel, no longer were we chasing after the whale, but the whale was now swimming after us, allowing also the rest of the team (Dr Marina Fastigi and Dario Sandrini) to make physical contact.
Exhilarating moments, culminating with the whale landing in our arms.
We had prepared a sling, which was tied to her tail, to prevent her from further damage racing into the shore, but this measure proved unnecessary because of the increasingly cooperative behaviour of the marine patient!
We were finally able to examine its entire body, as we were extremely concerned that it could be wounded, and the cetacean was trustingly watching our movement, increasingly relaxed yet very conscious. Inspecting its smooth black head, mouth, body, fins and tail, we did not find visible wounds, apart from a couple of superficial scratches. The more we caressed the whale and more it seemed to calm down. This whale had found some unexpected friends…
The night was now falling and we could not abandon this creature in shallow waters to wash ashore, so we decided to tow her to Sanctuary Bay, which has deeper waters, far from reefs, offshore islets and barrier rocks. We put her alongside the inflatable, where Adam and Dario, in turn, kept her floating, literally hanging over the side, embracing her head, with Marina holding her dorsal fin, gently, until after 2 hours of motoring very very slowly, we reached the bay where our larger vessel is moored.
At no time did the whale show it wanted to take off, as it was effortlessly ‘motored’ around! And she even indicated when it wanted to emerge to breathe!
Arrived at Sanctuary Bay, she seemed to prefer to be alongside our catamaran in 15 feet of clear water rather than leave yet for the deep. Marina left Adam and Dario in the water with the whale and hurried up the hill to contact Dr Tarpley, a whale & dolphin biologist/vet at SGU.
Apparently, he told us, these highly sensitive creatures tend to be prone to panic when they end up in very shallow and enclosed waters; their panic incapacitates them further from finding the way out and eventually they may get stranded and slowly perish.
In our case, surprisingly, with lots of kisses, soothing caresses and holding our bodies near her, we seemed to have managed to calm the creature down, so it could be efficient again with its sonar to find its bearings and possibly receive signals from the pod.
The second phase after the rescue was the release, further out in open water off Sanctuary while monitoring what the whale would do. If she turned back then something was still definitely wrong and we would have to try to keep her alive until morning to execute plan B: a whale & dolphin biologist/cetacean vet would have to come to determine the causes of the distress.
As young crescent moon climbed above the high hills of High North and over the calm bay, the quiet, dark and slender figure in the water also shined.
The Rescue Team, kayaking slowly, accompanied the whale toward the open sea: it seemed not to be in a hurry to leave and stayed around for another half an hour swimming and breathing slowly, then finally she took off into the deep ocean night!
At dawn Adam and Dario motored along the western coast of Carriacou, from Lauriston reef to the northern Gun Point, inspecting the shores, luckily finding no sign of a stranded black whale. Kido Wildlife Rescue Team, Carriacou
Some facts about the Melon Headed Whale:
The status and population size of this toothed whale is unknown. Threats: hunting and fishing nets.
It may swim in the company of dolphins and it is a highly social creature, more likely to be seen in large pods. Melon Headed Whales are known to strand in numbers like Pilot Whales do, although they seldom venture close to land.
The adult size reaches 7-9 ft and a newborn is about 39 inches.
Characteristics of this species are white” lips”, slim pointed head and a slender body. They have a remarkably high number of teeth, about 100. They are very fast swimmers when alarmed and are generally wary of boats. It is important to take heed that in normal circumstances physical contact with these whales is dangerous, as they are known to be an aggressive species, hence they are also called ’little killer whale’; attempts to tame them as ‘circus dolphins’ failed due to their ‘uncooperative’ behaviour.
A few facts about Kido Wildlife Rescue Team
Kido Wildlife Rescue Team is the wildlife rescue branch of YWF-Kido Foundation, Ngo, in Carriacou. Since its formation in 1995, the Team had rescued, rehabilitated and released several wildlife endemic Carriacou and Grenada species, such as iguanas, red-legged tortoises, snakes, opossum (manicou), monkeys, as well as numerous marine and land birds, in collaboration with GSPCA and Veterinarian doctors from SGU.
In 2003 Kido Wildlife Rescue Team launched a campaign for rescue, tag & release of the few remaining sea turtles caught in nets by fishermen in Carriacou. During the open hunting season, from September 1st to April 30, the team purchases live caught Hawksbill, Green and Loggerhead from fishermen, tags and releases them back into the sea; with the mutual agreement between the parties that if the same tagged turtle is caught again, the fishermen call the team to collect further data and together they release the turtle back to freedom. This program is sustained by Kido Foundation, private donations from visiting tourist and residents.
The total number of sea turtles rescued to date by Kido Team is 93; among them is the Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) listed by CITES as a critically endangered species, deserving urgent protection from extinction.
Kido Team, associated to WIDECAST (Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network), performs also sea turtle nesting monitoring on Carriacou beaches, where Hawksbill and Leatherback turtles nest from March to September. Post-nesting turtles are tagged and nests are protected or relocated if needed.
In the State of Grenada, Carriacou and Petit Martinique, Leatherbacks and all turtle nests and eggs are protected by law all year round, yet poaching activities of these critically endangered species are still practised, despite the increasing positive perception of the general public towards conservation versus an indiscriminate use of natural resources. Kido sea nesting turtle monitoring in Carriacou is conducted by paid local Nature Guides and eco volunteers from overseas, whose presence has so far successfully discouraged poaching activities in the patrolled areas and provided a safe environment for nesting turtles and hatchlings.
For more information please check www.kido-projects.com
Tel: 473 443 7936 24 hours