NORTH EASTHAM, MASS. — These are supposed to be the carefree days of summer on Cape Cod.
But at 2:30 on Tuesday afternoon prime beach-frolicking time clusters of vacationers are standing, silently staring into the distance.
They're peering at a group of pilot whales who've stranded themselves for a second day this time near what locals call, of all things, Harm's Way Beach. About 200 yards from shore, standing in waist-deep water, a cluster of 50 or so experts and volunteers tries to free 48 sleek, black animals.
Suddenly, the beachgoers hear a sharp cheer from rescue crews. It's the first sign of hope all day in the biggest such mass stranding in more than a decade.
"I see their tails moving. I think they're getting free," yells a woman in a floral-print bathing suit as she presses binoculars to her eyes. Before the tide came in this morning, her grandchildren scampered across the salt marshes with buckets and blankets to help keep the whales wet and shielded from the sun. "One of my dust ruffles one with lace is draped over a whale out there, bless his heart," she says.
That residents of this tiny enclave would abandon their beach time and best linens in what ultimately became a futile effort to save the marine mammals betrays the deep emotions many humans have for these creatures. Some observers caution that emotional ties can overwhelm other considerations, such as human safety and the cost of rescue. Yet in an era of "Free Willy" when humans are going to great lengths to save whales and other animals rescuing these mammals quickly became a national cause célèbre.
The response betrays dramatic changes in this seacoast region over the decades. Whaling was once an economic staple here. Harpoon boats and widows were common. Back then, whale beachings were a boon to townspeople, who ran to carve up the bodies for blubber and meat. It was a kind of Ahab's revenge against dark creatures of the deep.
But conventional wisdom about beachings continues to evolve. Just a decade ago, most people thought stranded whales were ill, and should be euthanized to prevent them from returning to their pods and contaminating other whales. Now, one dominant theory is that they are lost and should be helped back to deeper water.
"There's been a real change in thinking on this over the years," says David Wiley, a government scientist at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off Boston.
It's 3:30 p.m., and the 28 whales that emerged alive from this morning's stranding are meandering in circles in barely deep-enough water. They're resisting all human efforts to guide them to sea and swimming perilously close to marshy green grasses that stand in depths of two to three feet.
Circling around them is a bevy of watercraft: several motor boats and two jet skis piloted by members of the official response team, and seven kayaks paddled by impromptu volunteers. The humans communicate via cellphones and two-way radios. The whales constantly click and squeak and chirp at each other. When whales head for the shallows, a craft speeds to intercept them, its driver banging on the boat hull. As the whales pass by, spew from their blow holes sometimes sprays kayakers in the face.
Then suddenly, after two days of constant effort, the experts announce they're finished. "We just have to let them do what they're going to do," yells Connie Merigo, a staffer at the New England Aquarium who's heading the effort. She urges kayakers to abandon the cause. But they refuse and grumble among themselves. "It's so hard to listen to second-hand criticism people saying, 'Why are they giving up?' " Ms. Merigo says. "We've been at this for two days and the whales have beached themselves three times."
Indeed, questions about whale rescues reach far beyond Cape Cod. In Australia last weekend, 60 "false killer whales" stranded themselves on a beach. Fishermen worked in the water for hours, trying in vain to save them, despite the sighting of a big shark in the area. Officials in Seattle recently spent more than half a million dollars to transport a young orphan orca from Puget Sound to Canada to reunite her with her whale group. And trainers have been trying unsuccessfully for four years to re-introduce Keiko, the "Free Willy" star, into the wild.
Meanwhile, some observers are alarmed by recent moves by Norway and Japan to re-start the whale trade. Most nations gave up whaling and whale trading in 1986, amid dramatic declines in whale populations.
Scientists are often conflicted about whether to go all-out in trying to return marine mammals to the seas. On a personal level, "I'd always do everything I could," says Darlene Ketten, a scientist at the Woods Hole research center. As a scientist, however, "I'd think harder about it and take each case blow by blow." For her the central question is: "Is this animal just being stupid for the moment" and in need of help, "or is it desperately ill," and so perhaps should be left to die.
Now it's 4:05 p.m. A pack of about eight whales led by one the rescuers call "the big guy" bursts through a line of kayaks and swims forcefully into the shallows. They twist and spew, their tail fins silhouetted against the grass. "This appears to be their final resting place," says a volunteer. Eventually, all the animals strand themselves.
As crews clad in aqua-colored hospital shirts come in to euthanize the whales, the question re-mains: Why would seemingly intelligent animals do such a thing?
A central theory is that the animals simply get lost in the complicated geography of Cape Cod, a sickle-shaped landmass with many mini-peninsulas and coves. As the tide goes out, whales may simply run out of room to escape. Cape Cod is one of the world's most common spots for strandings, dating back to the 1600s.
A second theory is illness. Initial observations don't indicate any illness in these animals, but tests will take time.
A third, more dramatic theory is that whales use magnetic lines in Earth's crust to navigate, and when solar storms scramble Earth's magnetic fields, they lose their way.
In the end, Dr. Ketten observes simply, "Asking what causes this is like asking what causes a car accident often it's many factors."