01 June 2009

Fear and loathing in Kommetjie

An account of the mass beach stranding at Kommetjie, 30 May 2009.

At 14:58 on Saturday the first shot rang out.

Mr. Mike Meyer of the directorate of Marine and Coastal Management aimed a police rifle behind the eye of a false killer whale stranded in the shallows on Noordhoek’s side of Kommetjie’s Long beach. He pulled the trigger as ad hoc disaster task team members in red wet suits shielded curious members of the public from the scene by huddling around Meyer in almost military fashion.

Hours of failed rescue attempts, by volunteers and authorities alike, had passed since dawn revealed the sight of a stranded school of 55 whales – some of which were still suckling, others of which were carrying young.

Within the ranks of officialdom (MCM, the city of Cape Town’s disaster management team, the NSRI, Cape Nature etc.) there was firm SPCA-blessed consensus about the decision. But amongst volunteers, the sentiment seemed to be divided by Meyer’s final call.

Ms Liesbet Joubert, one of the hundreds of volunteers who waded into the surf early on Saturday morning to try and save the disoriented whales, recalled how she stumbled away in disbelief when she realised what was going to happen. “We weren’t over the dunes yet when the shots went off,” she told Health24.

The beach was closed to the public hours before the decision to put the animals down finally kicked in and resulted in surely one of the most darkly surreal episodes in Kommetjie’s recent history. Die hard volunteers, many weeping openly, reluctantly abandoned “their whales”. In some cases they had spent hours in the freezing water trying to save these huge mammals. Now they scrambled off ahead of the gunshots nearing systematically from the Noordhoek side.

Many of the whales – which grow up to 6 m long and weigh around 2 tonne – kept heading back to shore despite attempts by volunteers to “herd” them to the deep.

The reason for their behaviour is still unknown.

Ms. Meredith Thornton, a researcher at the University of Pretoria’s Department of Zoology & Entomology said the joint rescue team explored all the options available to them, before the decision was taken that the animals had to be put down to avoid further suffering.

Rough sea conditions and the fact that many of the animals had already suffered damage to vital organs due to resting on the sand and not begin suspended in water contributed to the decision, Meyer told Health24 on Saturday, shortly before the shooting started.

(- Le Roux Schoeman for Health24, June 2009)


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