Despite around-the-clock care from dozens of volunteers, a humpback whale stranded off the coast of Argentina died Monday.
Rescuers, conservationists, and volunteers from the coastal city of Mar del Plata, 400 kilometers (250 miles) south of Buenos Aires, spent several days digging around the 6-ton whale after it swam aground April 7.
“There were people who went two days without rest. Many people gathered all weekend,” said photographer Pablo Funes in an interview with IFLScience.
Volunteers used heavy machinery – including a crane to lift the animal and improve hydration – to keep the 10-meter-long (33 feet) animal cool, splashing the whale with water and laying moist clothes over it. The coastguard even designed a specially-designed harness that rescuers were planning to use to pull the whale back into the ocean using a tugboat.
When whales beach themselves, they can die from the crushing weight of their own body or from overheating from blubber that normally keeps them warm in cold ocean waters, according to Penn State. When one of these massive mammals are stranded alone it is typically the result of sickness, injury, or old age. The tide carries the animals into shallower waters and ultimately deposits them on sandy, gently sloping beaches.
The occurrence of mass strandings, on the other hand, is a bit more of a mystery. These strange events happen all over the world, from New Zealand to Chile and even across the coasts of Europe. Scientists aren’t sure why they happen, but have a few theories.
One explanation could be because of whales’ social structure. Whales that travel in pods use a “strength in numbers” strategy but could prove fatal when a dominant whale runs aground and the rest of the pod follows suit. This might also happen when the group is trying to hunt prey or evade predators and becomes trapped by low tides.
Weather might also play a hand in beaching large numbers of whales. When waters warm – either from climate change or El Niño – food sources migrate to find colder temperatures. Whales in search of food could become disoriented and lost. To that end, exactly how a whale navigates remains a mystery; some scientists think they use echolocation, others propose whales use passive listening, and some even suggest whales have a bio-magnetic sense that allows them to use magnetic fields in the Earth’s crust.
It’s unclear how or why the humpback whale became beached in Argentina, but it’s safe to say it had an impact on the local community.
“There is a lot of sadness,” said Funes. “There is a lot of desolation. It was something that the whole country followed.”