On Wednesday morning, a whale washed up dead on a beach in Murud-Harnai in Ratnagiri along Maharashtra’s Konkan coast. This is the third whale to have stranded on the coast between Mumbai and south Maharashtra in September. Researchers are working to identify the species of this one.

Since a research team studying humpback dolphins off the coast of Ratnagiri spotted a pair of adult and calf blue whales in May 2015 after a gap of almost a century, there has been a series of whale strandings reported in the media in this region. Three of them have been of blue whales, all calves, two of whom were pushed back into the sea.

In all, 10 baleen whales – a minor order of animals that includes blue whales, Bryde’s whales and humpback whales – have beached in Maharashtra alone since June 2015. Gujarat saw at least two strandings in May and July this year, one of which was a blue whale. And at least one Bryde’s whale has stranded in Kerala.

As the number of whale strandings has increased, researchers have been scrambling to understand what is going on and to develop a protocol on how best to deal with them.

A protocol certainly is needed. In Alibaug, last June, people flocked to the dying blue whale and stood on top of it to take photographs of themselves and their children, despite the best efforts of authorities. The next two strandings, perhaps because they were in less populated areas, did not see as uncontrolled a crowd response.

Dipani Sutaria, a Gujarat-based ecologist who has been studying marine mammals since 2000, is now working on a paper on whale strandings. Crowd control, Sutaria said, is the first and most important step to take.

But what comes next?

Refloat or euthanise?

“In most cases, scientists recommend leaving the animal alone,” said Mihir Sule, a member of the research team that first spotted the pair of blue whales in May. “A successful rescue can be considered to have happened when the animal survives for a long time after that. Right now, we do not have this monitoring mechanism in place.”

In February, Sutaria organised a United Nations Development Programme-funded workshop with international experts and Maharahstra’s forest department to work out how to respond to situations when whales are stranded.

The forest department in Maharashtra has been doing its best to refloat live stranded whales. It has moved a long way from its initial realisation that whales, as marine mammals, were in its domain and not that of the fisheries department. It is now reportedly working out a budget to rent boats and earthmovers to take whales back out to sea.

Researchers like Sutaria disagree that this is the best course of action.

“While smaller cetaceans can be kept cool and wet and then transported back to sea using a stretcher or nudged slowly back into deeper waters as the tide comes in, large cetaceans such as baleen whales are best euthanised if they wash ashore alive,” Sutaria said. “Marine mammal stranding networks around the world admit that ‘rescuing’ large whales is not possible, and sometimes rescuing to rehabilitate smaller dolphins is also often unsuccessful.”

The tricky issue of handling enormous mammals – the average length of the blue whale calves that have washed ashore so far has been around 45 feet and their weight around 20 tonnes – is a matter of debate in countries across the world.

The larger the whale, the sooner it begins to collapse under its own weight on land. The impact of this includes muscle damage and kidney failure, wrote James Barnett, a veterinary surgeon and director of British Divers Marine Life Rescue, a voluntary organisation in the United Kingdom.

Instead of refloating animals that are anyway near death, researchers now say it is better to euthanise them instead of prolonging their agony by dragging them back along the shoreline into the water. But even this is difficult to do with larger baleen whales.

“Large animals are very difficult to euthanise humanely and effectively due to their size,” said Barnett. “If a suitable, effective method is not available, then leaving the animal to die a natural death on the beach may be the most humane course of action as this is likely to be considerably quicker than if the animal is returned to sea.”

The best course of action in certain scenarios might, in fact, be to do nothing at all, no matter the public pressure or the instinct to return the animal to its natural habitat.

Treasure trove of information

There is another advantage to not refloating animals that are already on the verge of death. Researchers know very little about coastal marine mammals in the Arabian Sea.

“Pushing animals back to sea often does not end favourably,” wrote John Wang, a cetacean researcher who works in East Asia. “The animal just dies somewhere else and the carcass is lost to be studied to understand what may have caused the animal to strand in the first place.”

Wang believes that the resources put into rescuing stranded animals would be better spent understanding live wild ones to build a body of knowledge that could be used to prevent further deaths if possible.

The blue whales that washed up on Maharashtra’s shores were emaciated calves. Had they been allowed to die on the beach, their carcasses could have been studied.

There are only around 10 full-time independent cetacean researchers in India, who are working together or otherwise. At one time, Sutaria said, there were none. Government research institutions such as the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute and the National Institute of Oceanography do conduct marine mammal observations every time their vessels go out for oceanographic surveys. Dedicated researchers, however, are yet to survey the west coast of India.

“There is just so much we do not know, and it breaks a biologist’s heart every time we are stopped from collecting data or a carcass is just cut up and buried or burnt,” Sutaria said. “Knowing the fecundity, age at maturity, size at maturity can tell us about the survival viability for a species. It is a great loss, both in terms of a wonderful life that ended and in terms of the knowledge we never got a chance to glimpse.”