In 2009, a 30-foot long Right whale became stranded on Cape Lookout, N.C. For those who've never been, Cape Lookout is a remote beach, reachable only by boat or helicopter. The weather conditions were rough. During high-tide, the whale was completely submerged. During low-tide, it was completely exposed.
Craig Harms and his team of scientists had to catch a ride from a Coast Guard helicopter.
"The pilot asked me, 'How much time do you need?'" said Harms. "I said, 'I can do quite a bit in half an hour.' She said, 'You've got 10 minutes."
Right Whales are extremely rare. They're listed under the Endangered Species Act. So every interaction carries a special kind of weight. And when the whale in front of you is suffocating, peeling, and being eaten by scavengers, things get even heavier.
"We gave it some sedatives... but obviously we couldn't do anything for it," said Harms. "We were just kind of hoping it would expire on its own."
The next day they returned and the whale was still alive. They gave it some more drugs, hoping to administer what is essentially a lethal injection, to end its suffering. But the drugs they brought weren't enough to kill it. Only to stabilize it. So they did what seemed the most humane option: They cut open a vein and let it bleed out.
"It was hard on everybody."
How To Terminate A Whale
Sometimes it's possible to save a whale. In fact, sometimes they'll save themselves once high-tide rolls in. But in most cases, if a whale washes ashore, there's already something wrong with it. It may be injured and unable to swim. To force a whale back into the ocean would just turn it into shark bait, as opposed to food for gulls. And so euthanasia becomes the most palatable option.
Harms, an associate professor of aquatic, wildlife, and zoological medicine at North Carolina State University, is one of the world's foremost experts on whale euthanasia. He, along with a handful of other scientists around the world, have been trying to find the most humane, ecologically sound way to kill a whale that has no chance of living.
Option 1: Explosion
We've all heard the horror stories of people trying to literally blow a whale to bits, both killing it and clearing the beach of an immovable mass. Of course, this is messy. But more importantly, it doesn't always work. In some cases, explosives have been poorly placed, just injuring the whale and putting it in massive amounts of pain.
Researchers in Australia have developed a method more akin to implosion. Like how you might take down an abandoned building. The small, precisely placed explosive charges make a small divot in the whale's cranium, and send a shock, collapsing the brain case on the brain.
"One second the whale is suffering, the next second, it's totally insensible," says Harms. It's not something we do in the U.S., mostly because the public is less comfortable with the idea. But it's a better scenario than allowing the animal to suffer for days on end.
Option 2: Lethal Injection
The same way you put an old dog to sleep. Simply find a vein, administer a cocktail of different drugs: first to sedate the whale, then to stop its heart.
Generally speaking, its a great solution for any individual whale. It's fast and painless. The problem is, for a long time, the cocktail used was rather toxic, and hung around in the environment for a long time. There are cases of animals eating the corpses of euthanized whales and livestock, and then falling into comas or dying. Pentobarbital (a drug some are probably familiar with, either due to other veterinary work, or because it's used in human executions) has been the key ingredient for some time.
But Harms and his team have found a new, less toxic cocktail. The main ingredient is potassium chloride, a salt that pops up all over the place, including in fertilizer and food processing. Granted, the concentration the scientists administer is much more concentrated than anything humans would come in contact with.
The administer the drugs with what is essentially a four foot long hypodermic needle (remember... whales are big) attached to a garden sprayer. They inject the drugs directly into the heart. It's simple, relatively cheap, and much better for the environment. It's a technique now being shared with the international community.
Option 3: Do Nothing
It's not always easy. But, as Harms says, "Whales have been beaching themselves for millennia before we came along." And, sometimes, you have to let nature take its course.