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A blue whale that lost its way: The story of a heroic struggle on a beach near Mumbai

A blue whale that lost its way. Villagers who did everything they could to save their devmasa. The story of a heroic struggle on a beach near Mumbai.

Written by Anjali Lukose | New Delhi |
July 12, 2015 1:00:35 am
A blue whale that lost its way. Villagers who did everything they could to save their devmasa. The story of a heroic struggle on a beach near Mumbai A blue whale that lost its way. Villagers who did everything they could to save their devmasa. The story of a heroic struggle on a beach near Mumbai

“Ek, donn, teen,” they cried out — 40 men, battling the rain and waves as they stood in chest-high water. On the count of three, they pushed, using every ounce of strength to haul the lumbering hulk of the devmasa, or the blue whale, back into the sea. Aided by the retreating waves, she rolled over once. The men involved in the first stranded marine mammal rescue operations in Maharashtra heaved a sigh of relief. The devmasa, the biggest animal on the planet, was “visibly tired”, and it was clear that it would not last longer.

“A fountain at the beach,” is how villager Nitesh Birje, 67, recalled the first time he laid his blurry eyes on a black shape close to a remote beach in Revdanda, around 110 km from Mumbai, on June 24. The “fountain” was the water that flows out like a jet spray when the mammal exhales after “breaking” the water surface. A sleepy Birje thought it was caused by a large rock thrown in the water, but another fountain made him suspicious. As he drew closer, “the biggest thing he had seen in his life”, was thrashing its tail fluke and he rushed to call his neighbours. It was a 42-feet-long whale, which had come too close to the shore and was struggling to return to the sea.

Within two hours, news spread through the local fishing villages and a crowd gathered at the beach, followed by the police and the local forester. A few brave fishermen began approaching the whale, which was now at the north side of the Revdanda fort abutting the beach. Over a decade ago, the skeletal remains of a nine-month-old baby blue whale had been found in Kheronda village along the Revdanda beach. Its remains are still on display at the local government tourist resort. This, though, was nothing like it. A 20-tonne fluke-thrashing animal is something the experienced fishermen would fear even from the safety of their boats at high sea. They revere it too, believing it to be their protector. Every nariyal poornima, the fishermen offer garlands to the sea to worship the devmasa.

“It doesn’t attack humans and scares away other dangerous fish, despite the fact that we steal its food for sustenance. But we try and stay away from it because one tail thrashing our boat and we are overboard, dead even,” said Narayan Lamba, a fisherman from Kheronda village.

Staying clear of its “giant” head, fishermen gingerly touched the beached whale’s leathery body. It had been pushed by the big waves closer to the shore. Around 2.30 pm, NB Gudge, divisional forest officer of Alibaug division, reached the spot. He knew that he had a difficult task ahead of him. “Crowd control more than the size of the poor whale worried me,” he said. Around 3,000 people, mobile phones in hand, had approached the whale even as the sea became rough and the rain remained relentless.

“I did not want to expend time and energy rescuing people instead of the whale,” he said. He joined the 20 fishermen with his team of foresters and volunteers and began to push the animal. They would be at it for the next 10 hours. “How could I not? It was my duty to save the animal and it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get close to a blue whale,” he says. Why do marine mammals strand? It is a question that has no defined answers.

E Vivekanandan, consultant and scientist, Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI), Chennai, says, “Disorientation is the main cause. What caused the disorientation is almost impossible to say. It could be caused by an injury from colliding with a ship or an attack from killer whales or a disease or even man-made ocean noise (loud sonic blasts used in naval exercises or for oil exploration) which is a certain killer.” Stranding of blue whales is not a recent phenomenon along the Indian coast and around the world. According to data compiled in the book Marine Mammal Species of India, co-authored by Vivekanandan and CMFRI’s R Jeyabaskaran, the first stranding in India was recorded in 1874. Since then, blue whales have been stranded all along the coast from Jambudwip in West Bengal to Magdalla Port in Surat, Gujarat. Currently, there is no stranding network in India and much of the data reported is not accurate. “To improve coordination between various agencies, it is imperative to establish a marine mammal stranding network in India,” Vivekanandan says.

Weather conditions on June 24 were far from conducive to the rescue operation. A rough sea, heavy rain, and a 20-tonne exhausted mammal, who could no longer resist the waves. “It was the worst case scenario,” said chief conservator of forests, state mangrove cell, N Vasudevan, who reached the beach on the morning of June 25. The choppy waters made it impossible for local boats to form a chain and attempt to pull the whale to sea. The low tides couldn’t pull the mammal back to its home. The barge that the Coast Guard had requested to help out couldn’t even get 500 m close to the shore as it would get stuck in the mud. The characteristic gradual slope of the Revdanda beach meant that the mammal would have to be pushed 200 m into the sea, something the locals could not risk attempting even with an excavator. As the men tried to push the whale back into the sea, the tides threw it back on land. The tussle was draining the whale. By hour 10, its breathing had become laboured.

“The skin and body looked taut when she was in the water, but as she spent more time out of the water, her body gave away and began spreading like a bean bag. The droopy, kind eyes began to excrete a liquid. Aapli devmasa radaila saarkhi disli (It seemed like it was crying),” said RH Patil, range forest officer, Alibaug division. The new plan by 8 pm was to turn the mammoth animal to the south —180 degrees from its current spot. The creek, 200 m south, would have deeper waters than the shore, perhaps offering some respite to the exhausted whale, the officials concluded.

“But the whale was done trying. It knew we were tired as well,” said Raju Chunekar, one of the local volunteers. Through the night, batches of 40 men toiled in shifts to save the whale. At times, the water was nearly neck-high. “One swish of the tail and a leg stuck under the body would mean we would drown and be crashed under its weight,” says Gudge. At 4.30 am on June 25, the blue whale gave up. The Konkan Cetacean Research Team members, who had rushed from Mumbai, reached by 7 am on June 25 just as the JCBs began digging her grave beyond the high tide line. The team began taking the whale’s measurements. A quick examination showed old wounds and a relatively thin blubber. It was an emaciated whale, a female subadult.

“The moment she landed on the beach, her fate was sealed. It is a painful death once a whale is stranded. Imagine a fridge falling on your chest and crushing your lungs with increasing intensity by the hour. Once out of the water, the whale’s muscles begin exerting pressure on its lungs and kidneys. Its organs are meant to withstand its muscle weight in water, not outside. It is crushed by its own weight on land,” said Mihir Sule, a researcher. Two days after the blue whale was given a burial, a heavy stench filled the air. A six-foot high black “balloon-like” object rose from the spot where it had been buried. The gases inside the rotting whale caused it to blow up and rise above the ground. Frantic locals and forest officials, fearing that the great whale carcass might burst, decided to burn it. “No one could go close to the stinking carcass surrounded by a pool of its blood and waste,” says Gudge.

Firewood brought in by locals were thrown towards the spot, along with fuel. “There was no other way, but, sadly, now we won’t even be able to retrieve its skeleton,” says Vasudevan. A week later, the waves have erased every evidence of the incident, but the “story of devmasa” is everywhere. “Our devmasa will bless us with better catch in the coming season. She knows we tried our best to save her. She never forgets,” says Lamba, as he casts his nets into the water.

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