WHEN they were all seen together early this summer, Tag, Notch, and Baby were frolicking with a pod of 50 to 100 whales off Nantucket Island, Mass. Rescued from a mass stranding of whales last December along the shores of Cape Cod, the three young jet-black pilot whales represent a modest success story in the effort to save these mammals - from themselves. According to the latest satellite reading last week, the whales are now back near their release site, after some had traveled 1,200 miles, ranging as far south as New Jersey.
The story began when the whales were spotted milling too close to shore by local residents, who put out an alert to scientific groups in the area. By the time rescue workers arrived, many of the whales had already beached themselves and were dying, crushed by their own weight. But workers were able to reach the three calves while they were still in shallow water. Because they were in the best shape and were small enough to be moved, they were taken to the New England Aquarium in Boston. During their eight-month rehabilitation, they grew to 1,000 pounds and learned to eat live fish in preparation for a return to the wild.
In late June, scientists at the aquarium decided that they were healthy enough to be released. Because whales are sociable creatures, it was important to release them near a pod of whales, says Sandra Goldfarb of the New England Aquarium. Researchers spotted several pods of pilot whales about 120 miles from Boston and the young whales were taken there in a research ship.
The plan was to move the 10-foot-long whales to a floating rope pen to acclimate them before releasing them to the open seas. But choppy waves made the first whale, Notch, sway in his sling, and he was quickly lowered into the pen. When he butted his head through the ropes, divers quickly cut them, setting him free. Giving up on the acclimation plan, workers lowered the two other whales onto a platform and, using the ship's crane, lowered it and tipped them into the ocean. Scientists have since tracked Baby and Tag through their radio and satellite tags. Notch lost his radio tag in the release maneuver.
The whale rescue was a major experiment, involving a truck to haul them from Cape Cod; a spotter plane to locate the herd of whales; an 187-foot research boat, the Albatross IV, lent by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration; and a French satellite to track them.
This is the first time stranded whales have been successfully taken from the wild, held in captivity, and released to the open seas. Their rescue is one indication of the great efforts being made in the scientific community - and increasingly by the public - to keep this large mammal alive. The aquarium and other groups were able to respond so quickly because of the alert response by townspeople, says Ms. Goldfarb. And citizens as well as scientists worked together to battle high winds and frigid water to push the whales back to sea. A coordinated network of scientists, research facilities, and universities along the Eastern Seaboard (and in all coastal states) has developed to monitor strandings.
Part of that effort is trying to understand why a whole group of whales would in effect commit suicide on the beach. Strandings have been reported as far back as Aristotle, and for hundreds of years on Cape Cod (four times in the last five years). They've also occurred along the Eastern Seaboard, off Florida's Key West, Tasmania, New Zealand, Australia, and Ireland. Theories about this behavior abound, ranging from inner ear parasites, to being frightened by underwater sounds, to responding to distress calls, but scientists say there are no clear-cut answers.
``It seems to be a natural phenomenon,'' says Charles Mayo, director of the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies.
Each stranding pushes the frontier of knowledge about whales a bit further. ``This is the first time we rescued three whales because we were there so quickly,'' says Goldfarb. ``We had gained the knowledge of how to treat them from previous strandings. And we also had the animal care facility so we had a place to put them.''
Scientists debate the effectiveness of pushing whales back out to sea. Some say injuries sustained in the beaching will later kill the whales and that it's kinder to euthanize them. But others say that while some of the herd might have severe injuries, probably others will survive. ``I think there are substantial advancements made in the last few years that suggest that many of the whales that come up can be rescued if it's done fast and with a great deal of knowledge,'' says Dr. Mayo.
Regardless of what happens to these individual whales, the aquarium considers the experiment a success. The tracking devices will provide much new knowledge. ``We're learning about pilot whales in the wild; their migration patterns and habits,'' says Goldfarb. ``It's a giant classroom experience out there.''