A day after a blue whale died after washing up on a beach in Alibag near Mumbai, a forest official says that there was no way it could have been saved.

Despite the efforts of 30-40 young men fighting fatigue for several hours to push the whale back into the sea, the mammal remained on the beach, where it eventually died, almost 24 hours after it had washed up at a beach near Alibag's Revdanda port at around 7 am on Wednesday.

“The sea is very shallow at that part of the coast,” said Nitin Gudge, deputy director of forests at Alibag, who was present there through the day. “Even if you go half a kilometre ahead [into the sea], you won’t find deep water. With the shallow sea, the rain and the size of the whale, we could not do anything.”

The whale appeared emaciated and had an old wound on its side. Its cause of death is still unknown. On Thursday, it was buried above the high tide on the beach where it had died.

Rescue efforts

Blue whales, which are the world’s largest animals, can measure up to 80-100 feet and can weigh 100-150 tonnes. This whale, a young female, was much smaller at around 42 feet and an estimated 20 tonnes. Even this size can be fatal, as without the buoyancy of water to support them, their organs slowly get crushed under their own weight. Very few beached whales survive even if taken back to sea.

Gudge was among several officials to arrive at the beach soon after locals spotted the whale.

With the help of several locals, Gudge and other officials first attempted to manually push the whale back into the sea. They were working against monsoon winds, rain and the high tide, all of which confused rescue efforts and eventually washed the whale back inland.

“We could not go any farther because when there are so many people around, someone might have slipped and we would not know that he had gone underwater,” he said. “That risk we could not take. After two or three hours of pushing, even the youngest of us were exhausted so we had to stop.”

Given the shallowness of the sea at that point, officials could not get ships or boats close to help pull the whale back into the water. The beach made it dangerous for tractors to attempt to push the whale without harming it.

A carnival atmosphere


A picture of the whale circulated on social media including Whatsapp and Twitter showed adults and children standing on top of the whale and taking photographs of themselves while it was still alive.

The first officials from the forest department at the scene arrived at around 11 am. Gudge arrived three hours later. These photographs, Gudge said, might have been taken before officials got there, or while they were distracted.

But even when officials were there, they found it difficult to keep pleasure-seeking onlookers away.

“A man came up while we were there and tried to make his baby sit on the whale,” he said. “I scolded him. I asked him, ‘Is that a horse, that you are trying to take your child for a horse ride? What if it turns over? Your child will be crushed.’”

Gudge emphasised that many more locals were helpful rather than a hindrance.

“There are always one or two people like this in a mob,” he said. “In such times, anything can happen. There will be someone taking advantage, making a mockery.”

The other whales

Blue whales became a highly endangered species after persistent hunting in the 18th and 19th centuries ravaged their population. There are only an estimated 10,000 left in the world.

This whale was beached almost three months after a research team spotted two blue whales, an adult and calf, off the coast of Malvan, 400 km to the south. Ketki Jog, a member of the Konkan Cetacean Research Team that identified the whales in March, reached Alibag soon after the whale had died.

“For marine mammals at least, we are all at such a basic stage of research that a lot of times this is the first time we see things,” she said. “Whales have been washing up on beaches for a long time, but it is difficult to identify their species if experts are not there, or if there are not good photographs of its markers.”

Jog has obtained a live tissue from the whale to conduct a DNA analysis and identify its subspecies. She stresses that it will never be possible to know whether the whale that died at Alibag was the same spotted at Malvan, as the photographs they had were only just enough to identify that those were blue whales and could not even tell their subspecies.

No existing protocol

Blue whale sightings might be immensely rare along India’s coast, but the endangered animal does feature in Schedule 1 of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972.

Yet beached whales are so rare that there is no established protocol on how to rescue them. There was even a loss of a few hours once the Fisheries Department realised the animal was a whale and hence a mammal and therefore the province of the Forest Department.

On realising the whale was still alive, Gudge immediately went to the office of the Collector of Alibag to update her. There, he had to search on the internet for instructions on how they could possibly push the whale back into the sea.

“These guidelines are not put in the training manual because they don’t happen often,” he said. “But yesterday, we decided to include this information for the future.”