Department of Natural Resources workers and volunteers spent more than 24 hours trying to get a humpback whale, stranded in shallow water in Great Pond Bay on St. Croix’s south shore, back to deep ocean water. Their efforts ended in frustration around noon Sunday as the whale was pronounced dead just a few yards from ocean water in which it could have swum safely.
William Coles, of DPNR’s Fish and Wildlife Division, said a group that included people from various DPNR divisions, local residents and fishermen began rescue efforts around 10 a.m. Saturday. At first, they met with some success; they were able to get the 25-ton mammal off the sand chute where her head had beached and turned it around.
Using three boats, they managed to get the whale guided through the coral reefs and part way out of the bay by nightfall. Coles says they had a rope on the dorsal fin of the whale and, “We gently tugged on it to let the whale know the way we wanted it to go. It was like how you would encourage a donkey to go a way that the donkey did not want to go.”
The St. Croix workers were in contact with the National Whale Response Team under the National Ocean and Atmosphere Agency. The team recommended that the rescue efforts be discontinued until daylight.
Sunday morning, there were more encouraging signs as the whale had made it about 40 yards closer to deep water on its own. Once the again the team began guiding the whale out and once again progress was made.
But “something happened; something spooked it," Coles said. "There were big sharks in the area and that might have been it.”
This was about 10 a.m. Sunday.
On top of the hill behind the South Shore Boy Scout Camp, more than a dozen people were watching. They watched as once again the whale got itself stuck on a reef. They said for a while the whale thrashed her tail and was blowing water spouts. But then it became still.
Members of the team went into the water again as they had in the morning to make a health assessment. Cole says that this time it had to be quick because there was so much blood in the water that several sharks had been attracted. The assessment determined the whale had died.
Coles says there was probably some underlying reason that brought the whale into the shallow water, but because of the risk of the whale being washed ashore and causing problems, it was decided to haul the humpback out to deep water and let it sink.
Cole says that this was the first major whale incident on St. Croix in 10 years. In the last incident a smaller whale was in the shallow water around Frederiksted pier. Coles says it was easier to get that one back out into deeper water.
The whale that died Sunday was a female about 35 feet long. Adults reach about 60 feet. Cole says this one was probably an adolescent.