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My thanks go out to all the people who’ve cared about, assisted, contemplated and appreciated whales in general. Thanks also to those who’ve had the sensitivity to wonder what the whales want or need, taking a moment to pause automatic human-doing and instead trying to understand the animals’ wishes.

So, what do whales want? Specifically, at times of beaching? Firstly, it’s obvious that the answer will be different each time, depending on the circumstances, causal factors, individuals and the collective (which is a very strong influencing factor in whale culture).

Sea Rescue is assisting the Department of Environment Oceans and Coasts, and other organisations, with the 19 Pilot whales which beached at Noordhoek on the morning of 23 March © Sea Rescue.
Sea Rescue assisting the Department of Environment Oceans and Coasts, and other organisations, with the 19 Pilot whales which beached at Noordhoek on the 23rd March © Sea Rescue

The most recent mass stranding of 20 False Killer Whales on Noordhoek Beach in South Africa (23 March 2013) was challenging for all concerned, and has raised many questions and voices. The human voices are the loudest ? and the most conflicted. What I’m about to write is intended to give voice to the whales. In my professional life as an animal communicator I’m often involved in wildlife rescue and rehabilitation cases, in the interests of helping the animals and human understanding.

When I and another animal communicator, Wynter Worsthorne, connected with the whole group who beached, we both got similar senses from them. The reason for the beaching was that they had been thrown off track in their navigation. They couldn’t maintain the original course they had set, and so found themselves in trouble in shallow water, with stress and confusion causing the final beaching. Those who were able to swim away didn’t want to leave their family of podmates. The whales who beached were not unhealthy or sick. They had not been subjected to a sonic boom that might have caused them physical pain and malfunction. Their echolocation was working perfectly. Something else, almost magnetic in quality, caused a straying from course. The whales do not know the origin of the disturbance, and neither do I. I simply empathically connect with their experience ? if they don’t know, I don’t either. Human scientists would best be able to comment on what could cause such an effect. To the whales, it’s a mystery.

Beached whales on Noordhoek Beach, Cape Town
© Sea Rescue

Of the 20 whales who beached, some died naturally, some were euthanased in situ after veterinary evaluation, and the remaining five were transported by road to the naval base on the opposite coast. Here they were loaded onto boats and taken out to calmer seas, where they were successfully released and seen strongly swimming away together in formation.

A couple of hours after that I connected telepathically with the five survivors, only to have them tell me they were going to beach again and wanted to die. They asked me to find them physically so that I could help accelerate that process and support them in their transition. I phoned a friend to help with the search and we set off in the dark into the unknown. A few kilometres into our coastal drive, we stopped in a parking lot and I tuned in again to ask where they were. The feeling came back that we should go around one more corner. After a few more kilometres I felt a strong pull to my left, so we doubled back at the first opportunity, and discovered a beach I didn’t know existed. There, three whales were struggling in the shallows. They were suffocating, drowning and in convulsions of physical distress. When I asked why they wanted to die after being successfully rescued earlier in the day, they conveyed that the trauma of what they’d been through was too much to survive. Well-meaning and even appropriate intervention with all its logistical elements, plus the manhandling, had been too much. Too long out of the water, too much stress, etc.

It was obvious that the three whales were near their end. They did not want to be re-floated and were highly stressed by an attempt to do so. Once we’d alerted the City of Cape Town authorities to come to the beach, we were able to support the whales’ breathing in the rough surf and offer them the energetic support they wanted. That means calm energy, quietness, good intentions and compassionate witnessing. It does not mean physical holding or comfort (which humans often project onto wild animals who really do not want to be groped or ‘cuddled’ by people). Thanks to the tenacious efforts of the already-exhausted city rescue team, the distressed whales were mercifully euthanased in the early hours of Monday morning. The remaining two rescued whales died later that morning elsewhere. Sadly, they are now all accounted for.

Beached whales on Noordhoek Beach, Cape Town
© Sea Rescue

So, if the question is ‘What did these whales want?’ then the answer is that initially they didn’t want to die. However, this outcome was inevitable for many of them due to the stranding itself. The rescue attempts were well-meaning and valiant, but ultimately too stressful for those five whales to survive on top of what they’d already been through.

One of the lessons from all of this is that Cape Town should look at adopting a version of the international protocol on dealing with marine mammal strandings to aid the timing and quality of decision-making when crisis strikes. Currently so much energy is spent on faction-fighting (yes, even between the non-profit and conservation organisations) and general disarray on the day that a clear path to assisting the animals isn’t easy, literally (due to the public congesting the beaches and roads) and figuratively.

There’s also a differing opinion about what’s best to do ­on the day and for countless weeks and months of arguing afterwards. This is where I see animal communication making a major difference to how strandings are handled. By finding out directly from the animals themselves what they want and need, humans can relieve themselves of the enormous and fraught task of decision-making. Most importantly, the animals’ individual and collective needs could be better met by the humans genuinely wanting to help them. For each situation and each individual whale, the answer might be different. There’s no point in generalising or theorising. How about we simply ask the whales what THEY want, and then honour their wishes as best we can? That’s the kind of rescue that’s possible.

Source © Doug Perrine/HotSpot Media
This photograph of a False Killer Whale was taken off the coast of Kona, Hawaii by wildlife photographer Doug Perrine/HotSpot Media Source
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Anna Breytenbach

Anna Breytenbach is a professional animal communicator who has received advanced training through the Assisi International Animal Institute in California, US and has been practising for 12 years in South Africa, Europe and the US with domestic and wild animals. Her conservation experience includes working with cheetahs, lions, wolves, baboons and elephants in educational and rehabilitation programmes. Anna's goal is to raise awareness and advance the relationships among humans and other species, on both the personal and spiritual levels. She?s also the subject of the documentary movie 'The Animal Communicator' due for international release in 2013. In her communication and conservation work, Anna lives her personal mission of being a voice for the animals and the wilderness. Find out more at