Dozens of beachgoers stepped in to help several pilot whales that beached on a coastal Georgia island on Tuesday, according to local authorities and videos shared on social media.
Dixie McCoy, who witnessed the rescue and posted live footage of it on Facebook, told CNN at least 20 whales came near the shore of St. Simons Island’s East Beach.
About five or six whales from the pod beached themselves, and bystanders worked to push the animals back to sea, Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) spokesman Tyler Jones told CNN in an emailed statement.
“As we arrived at the beach, we noticed a group of people in the water. At first we thought they had dolphins doing some sort of show,” McCoy said. “As we got closer, we couldn’t believe what we saw.”
“It was so sad to see so many whales on the beach,” she continued. “Everyone was trying so hard to get them back in the water. “
It is unclear why the animals beached on the island, although pilot whales “are among the most likely species of whale to beach,” according to the DNR. “They are highly social animals and will frequently follow leaders and attempt to congregate around sick or injured individuals,” the DNR said.
“While stranding is a known natural occurrence, the only thing we can do is to continue pushing them out to sea,” wildlife biologist Clay George said in a separate statement that the DNR released Wednesday.
Thanks to the volunteers and first responders, the majority of whales made it back to the water to continue their journey, the DNR said.
Two of them died – one on East Beach, and the other about half mile south of St. Simons Pier on private property, the department said.
The corpses of the two animals are slated for removal and will be taken to a wildlife management area for necropsy.
Glynn County’s emergency management agency called the incident “an unusual occurrence” on a Facebook post, adding that events like these “can really show the level of care and support from our community.”
Pilot whales are members of the dolphin family and second in size only to the killer whale, according to the American Cetacean Society.