Rescuers surrendered their efforts to save more than 40 whales that became stranded for a second day off Cape Cod Tuesday because too many were sick or in shock over the ordeal.
Some were being euthanized. Others were being put on their stomachs so they don't suffocate and would be allowed to swim to sea on their own, but rescuers won't try to dig them out or push them, said Christopher Bailey of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
The decision comes a day after vacationers and volunteers worked feverishly to push the group of 55 pilot whales out to deeper seas after they beached about 25 miles away at Chapin Beach in Dennis. Nine died Monday.
"It really is the worst case scenario," Bailey said.
The whales that were euthanized were shown to be ill, according to blood tests performed earlier Tuesday, Bailey said. The healthier whales were being given the chance to swim away as the tide comes in, though Bailey acknowledged they may just return to shore. Pilot whales are highly sociable animals that travel and feed in groups.
"We want to give them the opportunity," he said of the move to put some of them on their stomachs. "If they can find the desire to swim off, they will do so."
About 300 people came to a remote area near Lieutenant Island on the Wellfleet-Eastham line to try to help the whales Tuesday morning. However, about half left when workers tried to restrict the scene to marine professionals and the media.
Some of the whales were thrashing in the shallow water, while others were wailing back and forth to each other.
"It's heartbreaking," he said.
Whale strandings are not clearly understood by scientists, who believe illness or other types of trauma play a role.
In the case of pilot whales, the strong social nature of the animals can contribute because they will follow a dominant whale even into danger, said Howard Rosenbaum, a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Though disappointing, experts said the new stranding was not a surprise.
"It's pretty common with this species," Rosenbaum said. "They'll turn right around and strand again either because they are disoriented or because a dominant whale will lead them ashore."
Television pictures showed the whales grouped together and far from any water. Local residents and volunteers could be seen throwing buckets of water on the whales. Many were covered with sheets and towels to shield them from the sun.
The new stranding came less than 24 hours after nine pilot whales died Monday after they beached themselves in shallow waters off Dennis, Massachusetts, southwest of where the whales were Tuesday.
The beach where the whales got stuck Tuesday is near Lieutenant Island, off Wellfleet, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod's bay side, which is known for its long, shallow tidal flat.
Pilot whales, which travel in pods of about 50 or more, range from 12 to 16 feet in length, can weigh up to 3 tons and live up to 50 years, experts said. The whales tend to follow their food source, squid, which can travel in shallow waters.
The whales' navigation system, which relies on echoing sounds, can be thrown off by the gradual slope of Cape Cod's bay side.
If the whales are stuck and exposed to the sun for too long, they can suffer sunburn and sunstroke, said Teri Frady, spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Also, when they are out of the water, the whale's own weight can crush internal organs.
In July 2000, 10 pilot whales died after stranding in shallow water off Nantucket Island, and on Christmas Eve of 1991, 31 stranded pilot whales died off Cape Cod.