When more than 100 pilot whales washed up on a Sri Lankan beach, heroic volunteers spent all night helping these marine mammals get past the waves and safely back to sea. They managed to save at least 100 whales, although five died at the scene.

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The short-finned pilot whales landed in Panadura, a town about 20 miles from Colombo, the nation’s capital. Local fishermen first noticed the beached whales in the early afternoon of November 2. “They first appeared as a dark patch in the horizon and kept on moving toward the shore like a giant wave,” said fisherman Upul Ranjith, as reported in Mongabay. But as volunteers tried to push the whales back into the water, the animals continued to wash back up on the beach.

Related: Record number of pilot whales get stranded, die in Tasmania

The reason the whales beached themselves is still undetermined. Pilot whales are known for extremely sociable, pack behavior. When one strays too close to shore, others may follow. It’s possible that a joint naval exercise involving India, Japan, Australia and the U.S. might have disrupted the whales’ sonar. Short-finned pilot whales measure about 12 to 18 feet in length and are especially prone to beaching en masse.

Twenty-eight people from the local coast guard station and dozens of local volunteers worked together in the whale rescue operation. The COVID-19 lockdown complicated matters, as participants had to get special curfew passes.

“Rescuing these animals is not just about rolling them out to sea again,” marine mammal expert Asha de Vos told Mongabay. “It’s a little more complicated than that as it is important to refloat the animals as soon as possible and guide them back to deeper waters to prevent them getting pushed back to the shore.” De Vos likened the whales’ efforts to get past waves and return to open sea as being stuck on a treadmill for hours.

Personal watercraft owners saved the day. They were enlisted to tow the animals out to sea — a dangerous proposition both for the whales and the rescuers. The entire mission took about 16 hours, but the ending was — for the most part — a happy one.

Via Mongabay

Image via Bernhard Stärck