KIHEI, Maui (HawaiiNewsNow) - After an emotional rescue effort in South Maui, wildlife experts euthanized two pygmy killer whales on Tuesday.
This is the second stranding event in less than a month, involving that same species at the same beach in Kihei.
About a week after the first beaching on August 29, marine mammal experts started tracking six whales from a different group that was swimming unusually close to shore.
The animals happened to be caught on camera in the days before the latest stranding because of a University of Hawaii and Pacific Whale Foundation study that started last year.
Researchers used a drone to collect measurements and assess the health of the group starting on September 13, the first day the animals were spotted in Maalaea Bay.
“On the first day we saw them, they had much more energy. They were moving, traveling. When we returned to them on the 16th, they were much less energetic, very lethargic behaviors,” said Stephanie Stack, chief biologist for the Pacific Whale Foundation. “And then again yesterday, the same thing.”
NOAA officials said the animals weren't from the previous stranding in late August, when four whales were euthanized and six others were taken back out into the ocean.
After an assessment that included blood tests, the two animals in the latest stranding event were also euthanized.
"They usually strand because they're very, very sick," explained David Schofield, NOAA's regional stranding coordinator. "The alkaline phosphatase level that we were able to see in these whales showed basically, it would have been inhumane of us to put these animals back out into the wild."
According to Schofield, individual strandings of pygmy killer whales in the islands are unusual, occurring about every two to three years. Mass strandings are very rare. Before the recent Maui incidents, experts said the last one involved pilot whales at Kauai’s Kalapaki Beach in 2017.
"Prior to that, Hawaii hasn't seen mass strandings since the 1950s and 60s so it's been a good 40, 50 years since we've seen mass strandings out here," said Schofield. "It's a little alarming that we would see two to three mass strandings in a two to three year period.
The bodies of the two whales will be flown to Oahu for a post-mortem examination by the University of Hawaii Stranding Lab.
Experts will look into various possibilities, such as viruses and ocean pollution.
"We believe that marine mammals in that stage of being ocean health indicators can be potentially impacted by climate change," said Schofield. He added, however, that it would be "very difficult to speculate at this point in time and connect global climate change to these strandings."
Marine mammal experts hope that the four remaining whales will swim out into to deeper waters.