- Associated Press - Sunday, August 27, 2017

DAUFUSKIE ISLAND, S.C. (AP) - When Joanne and Mike Loftus spotted a whale struggling in the surf Thursday night on Daufuskie Island, they helped push it back out to sea.

Watching it swim away, the two were excited.

“We thought we saved its life,” Mike said.

When the pair went back out Friday morning for turtle patrol, they saw that the 11-foot male pygmy sperm whale had washed up dead.

Mike said he learned an important lesson from the experience.

“When you see a beached whale, you’re supposed to stay away and call authorities, because it could be diseased, … and if you push it back out, it could be attacked by sharks and have a violent death, instead of the death it’s supposed to have,” he said.

Amber Kuehn, director of Spartina Dolphin and Sea Turtle Stranding Response Team, said whales, compared with dolphins, rarely are stranded on the beaches of Daufuskie or Hilton Head islands. But when it happens, she said her team of volunteers is ready.

“We were out there for five hours today,” she said. “It’s a huge effort.”

The whale’s cause of death is not yet known, but Kuehn is taking tissue samples from the whale to Fort Johnson in Charleston for analysis by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The rest of the whale carcass was buried on the beach.

“It’s very important to me to keep track of the health of our marine population,” Kuehn said. “(Whales) alert us to problems going on in the ocean. They’re like the top of the food chain. If something goes wrong down below, they’re going to be the indicator.”

Pygmy sperm whales are small members of the toothed whale group that usually weigh between 700 and 1,000 pounds and measure up to about 11 feet in length, according to the NOAA. They are slow swimmers and tend to avoid ships, so they are not commonly seen at sea except by biologists looking for them, the NOAA website said.

Population figures for the pygmy sperm whale in the Atlantic Ocean are unknown, but the whales are not considered endangered.

This isn’t the first time a whale has washed up on Daufuskie or Hilton Head islands.

In 2010, a pygmy killer whale, which was about 7 feet long and weighed 300 to 350 pounds, was found stranded in the shallow waves by golfers on the secluded island, according to archives from The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.

The golfers hauled the whale back into the sea, and it slowly swam away. But based on the whale’s lethargic response, a wildlife biologist with NOAA doubted the whale would survive long.

Then, in 2014, a 15-foot-long pilot whale beached itself and died on Hilton Head. It was the first pilot whale to be stranded on Beaufort County shores since 2012, when one was found on Hunting Island.

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Information from: The Island Packet, https://www.islandpacket.com

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