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Stranded minke whale swims free from Wellfleet beach

Wellfleet Police Department

A stranded minke whale off a Wellfleet beach Thursday morning. An IFAW rescue team worked to refloat the whale.

By Ben Thompson Globe Correspondent 

The International Fund for Animal Welfare completed the first-ever satellite tagging of a stranded baleen whale Thursday morning, during the rescue of a 22-foot minke whale that ran aground near Mayo Beach in Wellfleet.

The whale was first reported in shallow waters on the edge of Wellfleet Harbor around 7:37 a.m. Thursday, Wellfleet police Chief Ron Fisette said. The Yarmouth-based IFAW was then contacted and responded with a rescue team. The IFAW team worked with the Wellfleet harbormaster to get the stranded whale back into the water, while police managed traffic and crowd control along Kendrick Avenue.

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The rescue team initially attempted to use inflatable floats to help the animal out of the shallows, but the whale fought off help and managed to get off the beach on its own as the water level raised.

“The tide came in and they tried to float the whale,” Fisette said. “They tried to move the whale, but the whale ended up thrashing around and hopped off the little float device, and by then it was swimming free.”

After the whale was refloated, a satellite tag was affixed to the animal to track the animal’s activity after the rescue. The IFAW said it was the first time a stranded baleen whale had been satellite tagged.

“[O]ur team remains cautiously optimistic and will monitor the satellite track,” the IFAW said in a Facebook post.

After being freed from the beach and tagged, the whale was escorted by boats to more open water by around 12 p.m.

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“It seems like a successful outcome,” Fisette said. “Last I heard, the whale was out in the bay.”

“Everything went well,” he said.

Fisette said that strandings of dolphins, whales, and other animals are not uncommon in Wellfleet and often attract the attention of passers-by. The stranding happened during a chilly Thursday morning in the town’s off-season, but he said many people still showed up to watch and film the rescue effort while maintaining their distance from the beach.

“We do have a lot of strandings, not necessarily all minke whales,” Fisette said. “It’s happened before; different animals have beached themselves, so it causes natural curiosity. But people are good-natured about it.”

Minke whales are one of the smallest of the rorqual, or “great whale,” family of baleens, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries. Minkes can grow up to 35 feet long, weigh up to 10 tons, and live up to 50 years. Minke whales are distributed around the globe with a stable population in the thousands and are a protected species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The whales frequently swim along the eastern US coast, including Cape Cod, and sometimes become victims of fatal strandings in waters along the shore. Earlier this year, a minke whale was found trapped in a Chatham harbor and was later reported dead in a river upstream despite a day-long rescue effort.


Ben Thompson can be reached at ben.thompson@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @Globe_Thompson.