National Geographic Daily News
This photo provided by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife shows Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) Technician Clayton Parson standing next to a dead whale near Ocean Shores, Wash. on Thursday, June 13, 2013.

A Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife technician examines a baleen whale that washed ashore dead in June 2013.

PHOTOGRAPH BY DAN AYRES, WASHINGTON DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND WILDLIFE via AP

Jane J. Lee

National Geographic

Published February 5, 2014

If you saw an animal slowly suffocating to death—and there was no hope of saving it—what would you do? This is a question faced by the researchers, veterinarians, and trained volunteers who respond to whale strandings around the world.

"Most large whales, when they come to shore, they're already dead," says Craig Harms, an aquatic animal veterinarian at North Carolina State University in Morehead City.

But the ones that strand alive and can't get back out to sea face a slow, painful death unless someone intervenes. Some groups use explosive charges to kill the animal as quickly as possible. Others use exsanguination, which involves cutting a major artery where the tail meets the body, and the animal bleeds out. Some use drugs.

A new study published last week in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases identifies a mixture of sedatives, pain relievers, and a euthanasia drug that can make things easier for those dealing with a stranded whale—and is much gentler on the whale itself.

The primary goal is to relieve a whale's suffering, says Harms, one of the researchers involved in developing the new method. Without that intervention, a stranded whale is left to the mercy of sunlight, scavengers, and gravity.

Exposure to sunlight causes a whale's skin to blister and peel, almost like a third-degree burn. And their prone position makes them easy pickings for scavengers like seagulls. "The gulls really like to go for the eyes, and they don't worry about waiting until the animal is dead," Harms says.

In the end, without the buoyancy of seawater, a beached whale is crushed to death under the weight of its own organs and blubber. It can take from several days to a week for a stranded whale to die, the veterinarian explains. "It's a long, slow suffocation."

No Easy Solution

For groups that opt to use chemical euthanasia on beached whales, environmental concerns, human safety issues, and logistical problems can make carrying out that decision difficult.

One drug some groups use in their chemical mixes—a pain reliever and anesthetic called xylazine—can sometimes cause a whale to thrash around. That can be very dangerous for the people working around the animal, Harms says.

Another big stumbling block with current drug cocktails is the presence of a barbiturate called pentobarbital. Also used for euthanizing pets and livestock, pentobarbital first renders an animal unconscious so it doesn't feel pain, then stops the animal's heart.

But pentobarbital is a controlled substance in the U.S., and its use requires a license from the Drug Enforcement Agency.

The drug doesn't break down, so it persists in the environment. And pentobarbital can be absorbed through the mouth, which means it can affect scavengers feeding on a whale that's been injected with it—known as secondary toxicity.

A case study published in 2011 described a dog that fell into a coma after ingesting what investigators believed was the flesh of a humpback whale euthanized with a solution containing pentobarbital. The Australian shepherd eventually recovered after having its stomach pumped twice.

U.S. guidelines stipulate that if barbiturates are used on a whale, the carcass must be removed to eliminate the danger of secondary toxicity, says Teri Rowles, coordinator of the marine mammal health and stranding response program at the U.S. National Marine Fisheries.

Carcass removal is possible for smaller whales if they're accessible to trucks and cranes. But it's impossible to remove larger whales such as humpbacks, sperm whales, and male pilot whales.

For these large whales, pentobarbital is off-limits. Rowles notes that staff at the National Marine Fisheries have been trying since the early 1990s to come up with a workable solution that's safe for the environment, safe for humans, and humane for the whales.

She and Harms, together with several colleagues, came together several years ago to try their hand at a solution—which resulted in the drug cocktail and delivery protocol they describe in their new study.

A Better Way

Harms says he was spurred to try to come up with a better way after dealing with a stranded two-year-old right whale calf in 2009. It was in a hard-to-reach part of a beach in North Carolina, and by the time he and colleagues reached the animal, its skin was peeling and seagulls had been picking at its flesh.

Since they couldn't use pentobarbital to euthanize the whale, they decided to kill it as quickly as they could by exsanguination.

"That was one of the first live whales I had been close to," Harms says. "When you're standing there, and you can see the muscle ripple under the blubber, and it's looking back at you, and you don't have the tools to do right by it, that was hard." (Learn how scientists rescue stranded whales.)

So Harms, Rowles, and colleagues developed a new mix of four drugs—midazolam, acepromazine, xylazine, and potassium chloride—that, when administered sequentially, can euthanize a stranded whale more humanely without being toxic for other creatures in the environment or dangerous for people to work with. Midazolam is commonly used to relax people, and acepromazine to calm horses and dogs, Harms says.

Once the whale is quiet, xylazine is administered. If xylazine is given after midazolam and acepromazine, the whale doesn't thrash, Harms says, which makes it much safer for people to work around it.

"The xylazine offers pain relief and anesthesia to the point where we can give the final drug, potassium chloride," Harms says. Potassium chloride stops the heart.

The researchers also came up with a new way of administering those drugs using a garden sprayer connected to custom-made needles. The pressurized sprayer enables delivery of the right quantities of the necessary drugs. And the needles allow workers to access veins near the fins, which keeps them away from the dangerous tail end of the whale.

They distributed their new protocol and equipment to stranding groups around the country, including the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito in northern California. Shawn Johnson, director of veterinary science for the center, who was not involved in the study, praises the new approach.

"People have been talking for a while now on finding other ways of euthanizing whales," he says, and this new method appears to be very safe and humane.

"Here in California, it's rare that we have large whales strand, unlike on the East Coast," Johnson says. Although he and his colleagues have not used the new method yet, they've acquired all the recommended equipment and drugs.

"Euthanizing whales is not an easy way out," Harms says. "It's not something we enjoy doing." But now, people confronting the problem of whale strandings have one more tool in their kit to help them do what's least traumatic for the distressed creatures.

Follow Jane J. Lee on Twitter.

89 comments
Sarah Elizabeth
Sarah Elizabeth

Yes but how do we get them off the beach when they are to big? Stupid ppl wee cutting them up her ein San Diego. Not cool

Sarah Elizabeth
Sarah Elizabeth

What I'd like to know it how to get them off the beach without cutting them up? They did this here in san diego a few days ago and my heart was crushed.

Raiju Jose
Raiju Jose

Size is not important but brain!!!!!!

Steven Doherty
Steven Doherty

As with anything thats living eventually its going to die no matter what size it is , whales, dolphins, man all manner of living creatures. To blame man seems a bit much, when the simple fact is living creatures die, or get caught is situations that we have no idea whats going on. 

 Folks talking aboiut sonar poisoning , when whales are one of the loudest creatures in the world, their sounds carry for up to a thousand miles. I live onboard a navy ship and they would always be testing the sonars in the harbor, was loud but not loud enough to make me deaf. 

   The moment you can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that its humans that are causing these things , and not mearly speculation then I might consider this. Please stop accusing "man " for something that might be happening from a natural event. 

   I do care about the oceans and the environment we all share , but speculation is simply that speculation, no facts . 

  Get your facts straight, present your proof,  then i'll listen to ya. 

Joseph Barnes
Joseph Barnes

Very good article thank you for your tenderness Mr. Harm.

Tess Venus
Tess Venus

There are two more points to add to this debate, human interference within the oceans is massive and has added to whales beaching themselves with greater frequency.


Its not just sonar pollution, but pollution from chemicals in massive doses, fuel from ships and plastics, some of these plastics are so small they are absorbed by other organisms rendering them poisonous to all marine life [plastics absorb poisons that are toxic], incidents of cancer in marine mammals is increasing rapidly this will of course enter our food chain.


Massive corporate business models are killing us all - we're just too stupid to stop it. We are supposed to be custodians of this planet instead we pillage it - frankly it makes me ashamed that governments and big business has such tunnel vision lets live for today tomorrow doesn't matter [just as long as their all right] .

Vincent M.
Vincent M.

sorry but the first thing that went through my mind when i glanced at the title was a theoretical problem I was thinking of some time ago. If you were hunting or defending yourself from dinosaurs or alien creatures the size of dinosaurs with roughly similar physiology, what modern day gun/ammo would you use to ensure reasonable results with center of mass/torso shots? The problem would be ensuring deep enough penetration with big enough holes. And this being about killing whales I was expecting something similar. But the article was about chemical poisons not guns. Sorry

Christina Bilby
Christina Bilby

It is sad reading but comforting that the whale suffers less with this new drug.

Barbara Cullom
Barbara Cullom

Thank you to all who put time and effort into imagining a more peaceful way for ending the slow death of these large mammals who are in an insoluble predicament. Until humans understand what causes these episodes and can try to prevent them, it is the least we can do for own sister and fellow travelers on earth.

Ruth Orovich
Ruth Orovich

Doesn't the whale have a brain?  Why doesn't someone just shoot it?  "They shoot horses, don't they?"

Mezky Yandito
Mezky Yandito

My opinion:
1. Try to reduce the amounts of stranded whales (dunno, reducing sonar usage maybe?). I guess it's impossible to make the number goes to zero, but i'm sure reducing it is possible
2. Those whales that got stranded, I think the best option is to make foods out of them or using them for something (maybe the bones or any of their organs are useful). I guess that's the best way to honor a dead (not by age) animal, so that we'll remind that they're what keeps our stomach filled so that we could continue on living. At least that's what I thought when I ate chickens, fishes etc. So why can't it be applied on those whales? We could even give some foods to the poor peoples by using those stranded whales, so why not?

For how to kill them, just do it quickly, but I guess if we were to use them for things, poisons or drugs are not the right choice. 

CMIIW, and feel free to add some informations or disagree with me. I realize that i'm not full of knowledges about whether whales are poisonous or not, or if there's any medical problems etc.

Yash A. Baley
Yash A. Baley

why do we always kill them??

we are bursting them and exsanguination(whatever) and anything but afterall you are killing them and which is totally INHUMAN.

why we can't think about saving them. They are Bloody Important.

Christopher Elliott
Christopher Elliott

Military sonar use has been found to cause mass stranding of whale and dolphin species.  The animals suffered from bleeding on the brain, ears, and internal tissues.  The stranded mammals were also found to be suffering from the bends. 


But this doesn't explain all stranding events worldwide and an answer hasn't been found.  There are probably individual reasons why different stranding events occur.


Unfortunately, the human race believes it owns the land, seas, air, and now space.  The reality is that nature owns us.  If we destroy our habitat then we will strand ourselves. 


Should we interfere in nature's course?  No.  It creates disasters.  We will never be able to control the power of nature.  Our interference has already come at a great cost.


Ease suffering?  Sure, if human.  Let the other species look after themselves.  What we need to do is respect the land, forests, seas, air, and stop being selfish for our own betterment. 


Until then, the human race is a collective moron.   

Dimitria Fay
Dimitria Fay

Were there this many strandings in the past?  Is there accurate count of strandings  through the years.

Thank you Nat Geo for all you do.

Tom W.
Tom W.

Hey NG-Team,


just an idea - but would it be possible to drive with a ship near the beach that loads the sand under the whale and the whale it self in a big tank in the ship. Drive to deeper sea and open the tank at the bottom so the sand and whale fall into the water!?

The US Navy got the technology to drive with battleships in water that is lower as a car and in rivers the sand at the ground would lift up daily to keep it deep enought.
So we got all the technologies, just combine them.

Would be nice if anyone can tell me his opinion to this idea!? :)

Mennah El-Atroush
Mennah El-Atroush

 Why not bring something like a crane or whatever that lifts him up and puts him back in the water... Doesn't matter how much it will cost but its definitely better than killing him

Majd Kharman
Majd Kharman

if it takes for a whale several days to die ... why not just bring heavy equipment and move it back to the water ? 

Leendert Peters
Leendert Peters

What's wrong with the world? This has happened for thousands of years, just let nature do her work..

Nikoli Stevens
Nikoli Stevens

2 years ago I was in long beach washington and there was a washed up whale there

Marissa Levetzow
Marissa Levetzow

I didn't know this was such a huge issue. Several days to a week for a beached whale to die on its own while dealing with sun blisters, seagulls picking at it, and suffocation. Glad I don't have to see this stuff on a regular basis, then again, that's why I'm clueless.

Julian Rosario
Julian Rosario

How about coming up with a way to save the whales instead of killing them?

Joel Bhatt
Joel Bhatt

@Steven Doherty The research behind whether sonar and the like affect whale numbers significantly still needs building on but I think the biggest issue people are concerned about is whaling.

Justin Gage
Justin Gage

@Tess Venus<<Massive corporate business models are killing us all - we're just too stupid to stop it. We are supposed to be custodians of this planet instead we pillage it - frankly it makes me ashamed that governments and big business has such tunnel vision lets live for today tomorrow doesn't matter [just as long as their all right] .>>

 I agree and i think it's more than stupidity I think there is almost a brainwashed culture of Marginalization... almost as if you say anything against these practices you are a tree hugging, foolish, uneducated, conspiracy theorist.

While trying to Organize a beach and sea bed clean up  event I hit up 2 potential sponsors, they both published and campaigned on the fact they are sensitive, proactive and committed to the environment and it was a huge part of their advertising. When approached, although never turning down the project they strung me along up and down the chain telling me to check locally and then telling me to check at the corporate level... These two companies are responsible  for at least 90% of the garbage, specifically the plastics that litter my beaches... plastics that will take at least 400 years to break down. I am sure the same Logos sponsor the littering of your beaches regardless of where you are on the world.

The reality is that not only are we harming these ecosystems and marine life, we are putting our selves in danger. The piracy in Somalia is another direct consequence of these practices:


Peter Lehr, a Somalia piracy expert at the University of St. Andrews, says "It's almost like a resource swap, Somalis collect up to $100 million a year from pirate ransoms off their coasts and the Europeans and Asians poach around $300 million a year in fish from Somali waters." (Source Wikipedia: Piracy in Somalia)


It's true the problem of piracy in Somalia has dropped... But you think just maybe that's because Almost every country with a navy has heavy activity there? So is the problem really solved? Are we not just treating the symptoms?


And then we could talk about the Orange Roughy, the 3 ton nets that just rape the fragile echo system at the bottom of the Ocean, and many other local and international versions of this problem...


Yes listen to me I sound like a total conspiracy theorist...

Jane Lee
Jane Lee expert

@Ruth Orovich  These whales are pretty big, so you'd need a pretty large caliber to kill a whale in that way. Groups in Australia use shaped explosive charges applied to a whale's head, which works quickly and is quite effective, according to the experts I spoke to.

Timothy Mulder
Timothy Mulder

@Mezky Yandito  I think they don't make food out of them is because it would be more expensive than to 'trow them away' + the meat that we eat is already really cheap, so it would never be cheaper than that. I do like the concept, but the money in making food out of whales should than rather go to 'the poor' directly.

Melissa Brown
Melissa Brown

@Yash A. Baley

People have tried moving them, but it is extremely difficult and the animal cannot help in anyway. Moving them probably causes more pain. I saw some people pouring a lot water over the skin to alleviate the blisters. That may have been soothing to the creature. I would at least try that. I wonder of wet sand on their backs would help block the sun's heat? My heart breaks over how much habitat destruction (wittingly or unwittingly) our actions cause.

Jane Lee
Jane Lee expert

@Yash A. Baley  Not every whale that strands on a beach is killed. The experts I talked to said they only consider euthanizing a whale once every other option is ruled out. Once it looks like a whale can't be saved, they try to end its suffering as quickly as possible.

Randi Wilson
Randi Wilson

@Yash A. Baley  Sometimes its too late to save them and they most likely to far gone. Even if they were to be pushed back into the water, its likely they'll just wash back up. It's kinder to end the suffering rather then prolong it in an unnecessary rescue attempt.

Carioca Janeiro
Carioca Janeiro

Just a thought: humans are part of nature, occupying a niche like any other animal. I know its hard to accept, but we did not come from another planet and landed here yesterday. We evolved here, and are acting exactly as "nature" intended for us to do, just like termites or carpenter ants. 


Sure, intelligence gives us a chance to figth the course nature has set for us, but in the wider picture what we call Nature is just a big battleground where species fight each other to the death so they can continuously evolve and the best adapted can reproduce faster and have a better chance for survival. Sorry to say but nature loves disasters, they are accelerators for evolution and produce better life forms.


But this is all moot, since we are all tourists here. The real owners of the planet are the bacteria, always were, always will be.

Jane Lee
Jane Lee expert

@Dimitria Fay  Getting an exact count can sometimes be difficult. There is data on strandings up until 2009 (http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/health/faq.htm). 


Data from 2010 until now hasn't yet be collated to the point where NOAA Fisheries will post them online. That's because HQ gets data from several stranding networks around the country. It takes time to sift through the data and pull meaningful statistics out of it.

Владимир Предоев
Владимир Предоев

@Tom W.  You do realize that the whale, the sand and some water have to be lifted together in one move, right? While this sounds a rather impressive idea for a smaller cargo/load etc to me personally it`s nowhere near practical for a giant 20 ton 20 meter marine mammal with additional wight because of the sand, water and so on. It should be kept in mind that the whale is not a sack of potatoes and you as a rescuer should deal with it in a tender, delicate and cautious way. Also I`m curious and truly interested in these ships that can operate in a very shallow water while excavating the sand, mud or whatever the ground is covered with. Please share with me some more info about these machines.

Melissa Brown
Melissa Brown

@Mennah El-Atroush

When an agency gets its annual budget, if they blow it, they do not get anymore. Reflect on the primary purpose of various marine groups or agencies: research, crime prevention, transportation and recreation. No one actually specializes in saving large mammals everyday. It requires the kind of unified planning that almost never happens at the international level. I know it is very sad.

Jim Wissick
Jim Wissick

@Mennah El-Atroush To bring in a crane of that size in that short amount of time *IF* one is available (they don't keep them sitting around), and them able to get a sling under the animal? It's an impossible logistic nightmare. 



Gabor Kabacs
Gabor Kabacs

@Mennah El-Atroush  and tell me, how you go under the whales. and also there's a problem with it shear pressure put on her intestines.

Владимир Предоев
Владимир Предоев

@Mennah El-Atroush  let`s see it this way. Let`s pretend that there is a crane that can lift 20-30 ton animal. How would you balance it on the soft sand, against the ocean waves, winds and god knows what else as an obstacle. Also - can you ensure safety for everyone involved in the rescue when you can`t even bring the machine to the shore and you can`t operate with it because of the sand. Ok, theoretically we have found some sort of magical way to ensure the stability of the crane, the safety of the people - how do you lift such a giant while ensuring that there is no danger of any kind of damage to it`s bones, muscles, arteries and so on and  can you stop an enormous animal like a whale to go mad and break everything with the danger to kill everyone, because it`s shocked, in pain and some crazy creatures are doing crazy things with him? You can`t predict what an animal would do. Last but not least - ok, we have found a way to overcome that issue - how do you move this beast back to a deep enough water so it can swim away? For your information - at least 8 meters of dept is needed. 


Please invent an amphibious all terrain machine that can lift, transport and release more than 20 tons, while it`s humane and causes no harm to anyone, including the whale. If it seems too easy for you - do all of this as quick as possible, because the more time passes saving the whale because of the damages to its vital organs becomes less and less possible.

Владимир Предоев
Владимир Предоев

@Majd Kharman  try being stationery for two days for example with a 100 kilogram concrete block on your chest. This is what the whale is going through when its weight is not supported by the buoyancy of the water. Do you think you can survive this scenario?

Jim Wissick
Jim Wissick

@Majd Kharman  By the time you could get the equipment in place and get the animal to water, it's doubtful it would survive. Not to mention there really is no way for that sort of equipment to work on wet sand. It would quickly become mired in the sand. 

Riham Fouad
Riham Fouad

@Leendert Peters  I think we will never be civilized enough until we become more merciful, caring, initiative towards other species. 

Linda Billege
Linda Billege

@Leendert Peters  centuries ago we had no medication for any of the  diseases, people had surgeries with no anesthesia. Now we are able to treat most of the diseases and people can be fixed without suffering on the operating table. So my advice to you: next time you get the flu, need an appendix surgery or whatever, just let nature take its course ... And to answer to your question "what's wrong with the world?" Ignorant people, like you, that's whats wrong with the world.

Владимир Предоев
Владимир Предоев

@Julian Rosario  sometimes miracle are less likely to happen and there is hardly anything for animals to be done. If you can`t figure the whole picture let me paint it for you - there is a titanic whale (15+ meters or 45+ feet) lying on the beach with a little more than 20 to 25 inches (40-50 cm) of water. Its skin is blistering and starts to peel while huge superficial wounds are likely to appear due to this situation. Please find a way to heal the skin and bring a 18 meters 25 ton animal back to the water where it can swim away from the shore without trouble which for a giant whale is at least 7-8 meters (21 to 24 feet) depth from the surface to the bottom. And if this sounds too easy, you are in a rush against time, and there is no guarantee that the poor stressed animal will cooperate in any way.


If you think of yourself as a maverick - please enlighten us with your life changing methods of saving whales with 100 % guarantee for success. 

Kirsty Buckley
Kirsty Buckley

@Julian Rosario  Because they can't be saved. Euthanizing them is a last resort. If a whale is found on a beach, the sea receding, sand too soft to safely get a crane there (if it would even lift the animal in the first place) then what exactly do you propose they do? At this point it's all about reducing the whale's suffering.

A lot of beached cases are already dying, from wounds or starvation. We may never know exactly why they do this, and it's heartbreaking, but it's what they've done for longer than the drugs have been around. People are just stepping in to avoid unnecessary suffering. 

http://news.discovery.com/animals/why-do-whales-beach-themselves.htm

Tom W.
Tom W.

@Владимир Предоев These are the two new Navy Ships, one of them can drive in Rivers or Coast-Areas:
-> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QMimLLcP_8E


And these ships can theoretically move tons of sand and other materials - with nearly no draft:
-> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dredging

-> http://static.dredgingtoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Lagos-Deploys-Watermaster-to-Combat-Flooding1.jpg

And it should be possible to do it without a dredger-shovel and use a front opened tank that moves under the sand/whale.

Canadian wood transport ships like this can move tones of wood and unload it with
submarine technics.


And there are a few more excamples for thechics that can be used for a ship to rescue whales.

Rachel Lee
Rachel Lee

@Владимир Предоев   I think lifting is the wrong way to go. Perhaps a more feasible solution would be to gently drug the whale, roll it onto a very large tarpon and have the tarpon pulled by a tugboat in the sea/people on land. 


But yeah, Euthenasia is the most humane route since there is no safe way to transport whales at the moment :/

Carioca Janeiro
Carioca Janeiro

So you suggest we go to the African savanna and start feeding lions and hyenas so they stop preying on antelopes and wilderbeests? Hunting is cruel, gruesome and, I'm sure, very, very painful, but that's how nature works.

I think our level of civilization has more to do with less interference on other species natural cycles, not with more interference.

Balaji Rao
Balaji Rao

@Linda Billege @Leendert Peters  ...oh...cant imagine leaving a creature being left to die ..even for few minutes..... leave alone for days..remember the kinda care we take to our pets back home. my god.....in my opinion those who are administering euthanasia to these unfortunate whales that hit the beach are...just...GODS...not an easy task though....

Jane Lee
Jane Lee expert

@Tom W. @Владимир Предоев  Another thing to think about is the cost of such an operation. If this ship tactic were feasible, who would pay for it? The stranding networks around the country that deal with beached whales don't have unlimited budgets and rely a lot on volunteers.

Ryuta Leung
Ryuta Leung

@Rachel Lee @Владимир Предоев  You know, i personally think we could always eat them, because whales are mammals, like us humans. They stimulate pain, and they actually feel pain. Though it looks humane, the euthenasia drug isn't really so humane. The carcass of the whale can't be reused and it just increases the amount of waste to be decomposed. A great solution is just to pray and give thanks before cutting up the whale and feed to the poor because they would need it more than average people, right Rachel?

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