Rescue Workers Brave Hypothermia to Save Six Beached Killer Whales in Argentina

A group of killer whales stranded on a beach in Argentina were saved by local rescue workers on Monday.

Seven killer whales, or orcas, were beached near Mar Chiquita in Buenos Aires. Volunteers were able to pull six of them back to the Atlantic, though one died during the rescue attempt.

orca killer whales
A stranded killer whale in Mar Chiquita, Buenos Aires on September 16, 2019. MARA SOSTI/AFP/Getty Images

Two passersby spotted the orcas and notified authorities, who alerted city workers, firefighters and marine biologists. Some 150 people in all helped with efforts, including many who were not experienced in marine rescues. Over six hours, they used ropes to drag the three-ton creatures back to sea.

"I regret that we could not move the biggest one, he died there in front of us," volunteer rescuer Natalia Villa, 20, told the paper.

At least two rescuers had to be treated for hypothermia.

"I never thought about the cold or the effort, I just wanted to return them to the sea," said rescuer Andrés Ersinger.

Orca killer whale
Six killer whales were successfully brought back to the ocean, though one died during the rescue attempt. MARA SOSTI/AFP/Getty Images

It's not clear why the pod had beached themselves, though Tourism secretary Flavia Laguné told La Nacion the group, known as a pod, may have gotten disoriented. The orca that died will be autopsied, though Laguné said none of the creatures appeared to be ill.

A maritime authority ship accompanied the killer whales out to sea to ensure they didn't turn back toward land.

Over the weekend, a rare gray baby orca was spotted by a whale-watching excursion in Orange County, California. The calf, believed to be a few weeks old, was spotted by passengers Sunday with a pod of more typically hued orcas near the Catalina Channel.

It's not apparent why its skin is gray, though its pigment could eventually darken over time. Traditionally, killer whales are born with a yellow or orange tint that fades to white as they age. Adults typically have a black back, white chest and sides, and a white patch above and behind the eyes. The backs of Antarctic killer whales may be pale gray to nearly white.

Despite their name, killer whales are most closely related to dolphins. They can grow up to 30 feet long, with males living up to 60 years and females to 90. Like dolphins, they're noted for their intelligence—communicating via clicks, whistles, and pulsed calls to socialize, navigate and alert others to danger or prey. Researchers have discovered that members of a pod share a similar "dialect."

Orcas have been seen to imitate each other, teach skills to their offspring and even "tease" humans. Alaskan killer whales have been spotted stealing fish from baited fishing lines.

Found across the world, from the Arctic to tropical seas, killer whales are described as apex predators, with no other animals hunting them. But some populations are considered threatened or endangered, mainly because of human interference—via prey depletion, capture, habitat loss and marine pollution.