*Warning: Photos and video may be disturbing to some.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) says that at least three whales have died after at least 47 pilot whales beached themselves at St. Simons Island Tuesday evening.
Two whales were confirmed dead on Tuesday night by DNR, with a third washing ashore on Wednesday morning. Crews are in the process of getting all the whales off the beach using heavy machinery.
“It breaks everybody’s heart, even me," said Blair Mase, NOAA Southeast Marine Mammal Stranding Coordinator. "I’ve been doing this 30 years. It’s not where they belong.”
DNR says that a necropsy will be conducted on the whales in a joint effort between their Coastal Resources Division and their Wildlife Resources Division.
Mase said the situation could’ve been much worse. Official counts are now nearly double the original two dozen whales reportedly beached or near shore in the shipping channel.
“We have a boat, a research vessel that’s with the whales right now in the shipping channel and they have counted at least 47 whales, so this could’ve been a very serious situation,” Mase said.
Fortunately, volunteers and Georgia DNR were able to aid the healthy whales back to the water.
On Tuesday afternoon, Facebook video surfaced showing hundreds of beachgoers trying to push the beached whales back to sea. GDNR confirmed that they had all been pushed back out, but that more mass strandings were possible.
“There is a chance that they could show up somewhere else," Mase said. "We’re hoping that doesn’t happen, but that is possible."
As a result, NOAA’s research vessel from the Marine Mammal Lab piloted the pilot whales about seven miles until they were safely out to sea Wednesday.
“They’re monitoring the whales," Mase said. "They are actually collecting information from them, dorsal fin photos in case they do show up somewhere else so they can identify if they are the same group or from the same pod."
What caused the beaching won’t be clear until after Thursday’s planned necropsy, results that could take weeks or months to find an answer.
Mase told First Coast News that pilot whales can sometimes become determined to strand at the beach. They warn that beachgoers should only act when under the direction of an expert.
Pilot whales can weigh anywhere between 800 to 1000 pounds.
If you see a beached or stranded whale, call 1-877-WHALE-HELP.