Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Why Whales Beached Unresolved

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Why Whales Beached Unresolved

Article excerpt

At first, Lewis Ponce thought the black specks in the sea at

Fort George Inlet were large jetty rocks.

But as the commercial fisherman drew his 18-foot outboard

closer, he could see they were whales. A multitude of whales

making high-pitched crying sounds as they swam toward the beach.

Why they were swimming toward certain death was a mystery. But

at the end of a cold dreary day in February 1977, the bodies of

about 140 pilot whales lay scattered along the inlet. It remains

one of the largest strandings of pilot whales on record.

"We may not know the reason why for 20 years," James Mead,

curator of marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution in

Washington, said in an interview at the time. Mead was one of

several scientists from as far away as California and Ontario

investigating the beaching.

Twenty years later, Mead said the reason why is still a

mystery, but there appears to be no single cause.

"What we need to observe is the behavior of a school that's

going to beach two or three weeks before it occurs, and we don't

have that privilege," he said.

Nevertheless, the Fort George Island beaching gave scientists a

rare opportunity to examine 140 whales, Mead said in a telephone

interview last week from the Smithsonian.

"That particular group hadn't eaten, so we didn't learn

anything about their normal diet," Mead said. "But we did learn

about their group composition."

What they learned was that the majority were females, and most

were either pregnant or lactating.

Disposing of the carcasses was a challenge that required a hand

from the Navy, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and the Florida

Highway Patrol. Most of the remains were loaded on flatbed

trucks and hauled to a landfill for burial.

Mead took reproductive organs, teeth and samples of unusual

scar tissue to the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History for

study. …

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