Beached False Killer Whales Shot in Cape Town, Kommetjie

Beached False Killer Whales Shot in Kommetjie, Cape Town

Posted in Uncategorized by deidel on June 1, 2009

A dramatic false killer whale beaching event occured last Saturday, leaving many people with the need to share their experiences. I hope to promote this through this blog. Here comes my account…

55 False Killer Whales beached on Saturday May 30th on Kommetjie Long Beach. Hundreds of volunteers and rescue-workers joined forces and saved 10 to 13 who made it back to sea. But just before high tide could perhaps have rescued some others, 42 beached False Killer Whales were shot.

Gunhandler Mike Meyer of Marine and Coastal Management and other authorities didn’t seem to justify their decision or manage the public’s reaction effectively. I felt that hours of long dedicated efforts were slammed, just before the long-awaited high tide. I saw officials forcefully removing journalists and volunteers, while gunshots abounded inbetween running children.

As we saw the authorities approach, we made a concerted effort to put the animal we were handling back in the water. But helas, we were only 5 people and most of us girls. When we were asked to step away, I demanded explanation and dialogue. But a friendly policeman kept repeating “The whale will be humanely euthanised. Wouldn’t you like to be released from suffering?” and Mike Meyer finally arrived to say “There was nothing I could do.” Any question about the upcoming tide being a last chance was simply ignored and a policeman took me forcefully by the arm in an attempt to remove me. I told them to get their hands off me, and after about five policeman had their try, one simply pulled me away, asked me how many times I disobeyed his order to leave (I replied ‘about 200 times?’). He forced me to the van and threatened to arrest me lest I leave the beach. Easy choice!

Inbetween the corpses and water washed with blood, we suddenly found one whale that hadn’t been shot. As the shooting action removed further away from us, we called in passers-by to help stabilise the animal now lying on its side and try lift it back to sea. I felt we could only try. (Read about how beached false killer whales were succesfully rescued in Australia on 24 Mach 2005). The goodwill and concerted efforts between strangers joining for the same cause was just incredible. By the time the sun was about to set, one person, Stephan Theron, ran up with sturdy red straps, and we lifted the animal deeper into the water in no time… I wondered where those straps were when time was still plenty? If all other complicated plans or coaching didn’t happen, where were the most simple things that could have made a difference?

The drama makes me question the decision-makers’ competence, now and in the future. Why had the animals to be dragged out of the water onto the beach, increasing the pressure on the lungs and organs of the animals. This pressure was later cited to justify the decision to euthanise the animals. Why were no straps and blankets provided? Why not give the animals a last chance during the upcoming high tide? Have cetaceans ever been euthanised before a full tidal cycle had completed? Why did Mike Meyer single-handedly shoot the animals himself? What are his and other decision makers’ scientific credentials? Why were journalists not allowed access? Why not inform the public appropriately? (I consider the public as key conservation advocates)? Fernanda “Nan” Rice of the Dolphin Action and Protection Group, one of the decision makers, labeled the public’s reaction as ‘disgusting’. In fact, following their decisions, authorities advise trauma counseling.

I have two more thoughts to add.

1) Humane euthanasia may have been for the mammals the least painful way to terminate the operation (the euthanasia was not a solution or rescue-method), but is our role to manage for pain? Are we managing to lessen the pain of beached animals (whether due to natural or human-made causes), or are we managing to protect or conserve populations and species and try rescue until truly all options are exhausted?

2) And even if another try during the upcoming high tide would not have saved another animal because these were already too exhausted, at least people would have tried and been able to psychologically process the natural sequence of events. They wouldn’t have lost confidence in the authorities and would have remained their advocates.

Deirdre Vrancken.

PS: The animals at Kommetjie were False Killer Whales, and not Long-finned Pilot Whales, as shown by:
-lack of a bulging forehead (bulging in long-finned pilot Whale)
-short pectoral fins (much longer in long-finned pilot Whale, especially in the section beyong the ‘elbow’ bend)
-lack of pale saddle patch (patch behind the dorsal fin)
Both species relate closely to the much larger Killer Whale (Orca) and actually belong to the Dolphin Family. They often don’t survive beaching, although a recent Australian success story shows that it is possible to save them under the right circumstances. (see

Wed 4 June 09: more  about the ‘humanely euthanising’…

I tend to think of two approaches: either we let nature take its course and let the whales be – even if the beaching was caused by human causes.
Or, we interfere and manage – which is what we tend to do. Then I see the questions: what will we manage for? For minimizing pain in the animals, or for trying to rescue individual animals as best we can for the sake of maintaining populations and species – even if the animals may be in pain for longer?

I’m not sure what the population status is for False Killer Whales, but I here assume that it warrants great efforts for trying to save as many as possible individuals. Should our notion of pain in the animals then really have terminated the huge rescue operation? (And do we really know how much it is in pain? If we do, should we start shooting someone who just lost its arm?)

Many volunteers and bystanders describe the rescue-operation as chaotic and mismanaged (see other posts in this blog, also see the Cape Times June 2, 2009, page 8 ). The authorities asked the rhetorical question: “Would you not want to end an animal’s suffering?”. It does sound ‘logic and the best option’ to do so; who would say ‘no’?

Does ‘humanely euthanasing’ (or ‘shooting in the brain’) justify ending the rescue operation? What about focusing on the rescue solution, such as waiting for high tide, providing straps, more blankets and coaching? Preventing pain in animals doesn’t seem to be a pure argument for ending what we tend to manage for: saving populations and species.

Unless perhaps there are enough False Killer Whales anyway, and so only their comfort is what counts to us. In that case, why have considered rescueing beached animals in the first place?

Deirdre Vrancken.
Other blogs, reports and pictures:Toni Brockhoven: “Who made the decision to shoot the whales ?”,1,22
Toni Brockhoven: “Harsh Call” published on page 8 of the Tuesday June 2 Cape Times.
Stephan Theron’s pictures: “how strangers can work together to at least try and make a difference”
Cape Argus on AllAfrica 31 May 2009: Whale beach saga ends in tragedy
Shaun Aukland: very detailed account with pictures and interesting questions
Comments about Mike Meyers and the decision makers
Sanparks Forum: False Killer Whales beach at Kommetjie
Shoot: Cape Police go on killing spree, kill 44 in a few hours
Connect Africa: SA rescuers save 20 whales
Cape Times Audio report by Lauren Cohen
Deems’s weblog
Simply Green: their full story
Simply Green: videos of the rescue attempts

See a list of whale strandings in South Africa on this site:

This blog is also linked through these websites:
Birding Africa
Cape Town Pelagics
Cape Birding Route

© Deirdre Vrancken and Blog named “Beached False Killer Whales Shot in Kommetjie, Cape Town”, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Deirdre Vrancken and Blog named “Beached False Killer Whales Shot in Kommetjie, Cape Town” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


2 Responses

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  1. Mrs Veen said, on June 3, 2009 at 11:07 am

    I am in tears. Thank you for sharing this story. I hope that the world can learn from these mistakes. Mistakes which shouldn’t be happening in this day and era.

  2. jack said, on June 9, 2009 at 10:31 pm

    Just because you push them off the beach doesn’t ensure survival. See Fehring, W. K. & Wells, R. S. (1976) A series of strandings by a single herd of pilot whales on the west coast of Florida. Journal of Mammalogy 57: 191-194.

    In most cases, if whales are on the beach they are there for a reason. Rehabilitation is costly and the success rate is low for cetaceans, and pushing them back to sea may further suffering, or cause the animals to drown, or simply restrand. What does “saving” animals that are being naturally selected do for the surviving gene pool? This is a question that comes up often regarding seal rehabilitation in the U.S.

    I know it was with extremely good intentions…but also putting back just a few or one of these highly social animals is probably not the right thing either. These are animals that survive by having highly cohesive social groups…it is doubtful that a solitary animal would survive long without the social bond of its pod.

    A gunshot to the head may not seem like the most humane option, but consider the alternative…chemicals that must be inserted into the bloodstream, which will render the carcass as toxic waste, and therefore cannot be left on the beach for fear of poisoning other animals that may scavenge.

    I do not believe that the euthanasia was unjustified or a mistake, mass strandings are tricky events and euthanasia usually really is the absolute last resort, and not a trivial decision. For the species of concern an event of this magnitude does not impact at the population level, so the main concern is dealing with the situation humanely.

    It does, however, seem to me that marine mammal stranding response operations in S. Africa do need to work on their methods of public education/management since they did leave so many questions unanswered, and so many bad tastes in peoples mouths, who were there will good intentions in their hearts. This Nan Rice person in particular definitely needs to be more sensitive to people’s feelings. Yes, stranding efforts these days are looked at from a very scientific approach- for those that work in the field. Bystanders from the public can still be very emotional and it is not wrong, or disgusting, it is human–and that is not something to be criticized. It is the job of stranding response personnel to educate and help the public learn more about these animals and what is being done in a calm way so that maybe some of that emotion will become understanding. At least that is what we’ve began focusing on here in the States.

    Feel free to e-mail any comments/concerns. I am not here to anger or put down, just want to discuss.

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