Community effort saves juvenile pilot whale beached in Cundys Harbor

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CUNDYS HARBOR — T.J. Watson spent an hour or so on the mudflats off Cundys Point Road Friday night, leaning against a 10-foot juvenile pilot whale so the beached animal didn’t roll onto its blowhole and suffocate.

Watson and a host of volunteers, along with Lynda Doughty of Marine Mammals of Maine, worked throughout the night Friday to monitor the disoriented whale, and were rewarded when it swam into open ocean with Saturday morning’s high tide.

“Lynda and I were down there mud-wrestling the whale,” Watson said. “She was pushing and I was pulling on the dorsal fin, and we managed to get it upright. I had to lean up against the whale to keep it upright for about an hour” before reinforcements arrived.

“It’s sitting there looking at you — you feel the muscles tensing and twitching,” Watson said. “It knew we were helping it.”

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At about noon Saturday, the sixth-generation Cundys Harbor man — his family owns Watson’s General Store — got a call from his mom, who told him a whale was in the harbor off Cundys Point Road.

Watson and his fiancee, Paisley Williams, grabbed a couple of kayaks and paddled out, and the whale “swam right up to us.”

The whale swam in circles around the ever-shrinking tidal cove, Watson said.

“It was clearly just really, really confused,” he said. “I think it had pretty much given up hope.”

Lynda Doughty of Phippsburg, executive director of the nonprofit rescue organization Marine Mammals of Maine, got a call just after 3 p.m. Saturday and headed down to see what she could do.

When she arrived, the pilot whale was swimming “with a kind of weird behavior,” Doughty said. At 6 p.m. — two-and-a-half hours before low tide — the whale stranded itself.

“The whale beached itself right in front of us,” Watson said. “Like, it gave up and swam into about a foot of water and flopped around and got itself completely stuck in the mud.”

While the whale looked healthy with no wounds, Doughty said the group resolved to keep it comfortable and monitor it until the next high tide. Along with Doughty, several employees and other local volunteers, she took shifts in the knee-high mud, comforting the whale and then warming up in cars. Neighbors in the area even opened up their homes for bathroom breaks.

The tide began to roll in at a chilly 2:45 a.m. — Doughty estimated it was about 27 degrees out on the flats — and more water underneath the whale allowed it to become more active, and volunteers watched to make sure it didn’t drown, Doughty said. By 5 a.m., the whale had made its way out of the cove and into open water.

Doughty said she’s not sure what confused the young pilot whale, but she and others will search the many Harpswell coves for the next few tide cycles just to make sure it truly is safely out to sea.

“Sometimes they get a little disoriented,” she said. “Once they get up into the rocky coastline of Maine, it can be a little tricky sometimes.”

Doughty stuck around until Saturday morning’s low tide, and another volunteer was scheduled to return at high tide.

Just before 2 p.m. Saturday, Doughty was donning cold-weather gear to head back to the tidal cove where the whale was stranded Saturday. But he hopes the whale has made its way to safety.

“It someone had told me I was going to be petting and saving a whale last night, I wouldn’t have believed it,” he said.

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