Live or let die

Last week a Humpback Whale washed ashore on a sandbank along the Dutch coast. The animal was alive when she was beached, so soon people tried to get her back into the sea. During high tide the whale got free, swam a little, but took a wrong turn and ended up higher on the sandbank. The next morning the animal, a 10 meter long subadult female, was still alive. First she was thought to be too weak to be rescued, but in the late afternoon she became more lively and, with another high tide, a rescue operation was started. Four life guard boats, a helicopter and many people in the water tried to get the animal free (see footage here). Unfortunately this attempt failed and the whale had to stay another night on the beach. The next day the decision was made not to try and rescue the animal again, as she was too weak and her place on the sandbank made it impossible to reach her with better equipment. In the evening vets tried to put her asleep to end her suffering. The next morning it turned out this attempt had failed as the animal was still alive.

In the meantime a great debate had started about what to do with the whale. Several animal rights organisations (like Sea Shepherd, the seal rehabilitation centre and even the political Party for the Animals) claimed more attempts should be made to rescue the whale, which had been named Johannes by now). Other organisations, like Ecomare, IMARES and Naturalis, who had helped out with the first rescue operation and had visited the whale several times said that all that could be done had been done and that any other attempt would just hurt the whale without doing any good. The whale would be too weak to survive once free anyhow… Statements by any of these parties fuelled a fierce debate on twitter and everybody seemed to have his/her own opinion.

Humpback Whale in better times


Eventually no more rescue operations were made and the whale died early sunday morning, almost 4 days after she was beached. The dead whale will be taken to a museum, where she will be examined and placed on exhibition at a later stage.

Here is mine: Animals do die. Be it by old age, sickness or just bad luck, every animal comes to its end one time. When this happens in a remote place, it’s all natural. I’ve seen several dead whales on Spitsbergen with lots of Polar Bears around taking care of the carcass. But this whale ended up in the wrong place. The over-populated country of the Netherlands, with people living far from nature. Every animal that is hurt has to be taken care of. We cannot see animals suffer, so we have to help them. And when they’re dead, they have to be taken away, as we don’t like the sight of a dead animal. Nature is a lot harder. It doesn’t care for animals that suffer or die. Nature does take care about dead animals however. They are cleaned up by a whole array of carrion feeders. These carrion feeders have a hard time in the Netherlands, as almost every big dead animal is taken away by humans. This whale was beached on a place where nobody ever comes (as far as that is possible in my country). So let this animal (or the Sperm Whale that washed ashore on Saturday on the same sandbank) just be where it is now. If there is not too much poison in it from the attempt to euthanize it, that is. Let nature take its cause and see what happens. Will be very interesting to see what animals will come and feed on the whale. Seals? Gulls for sure, but also White-tailed Eagles? Or what surprises will there be? But I’m afraid both carcasses will be taken away and we’ll never know…

Arjen Drost

Arjen is a Polar ecologist, nature photographer and full time expedition guide on expedition cruise ships in both Polar regions. With his pictures and stories he likes to show the beauty of these very fragile and threatened places.

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