Scientists: Maui beached whales were fighting infections

A post-mortem examination of two pygmy killer whales that stranded themselves on a Maui beach suggests they were fighting an infection, officials said.

The adult males had inflamed lymph nodes when they stranded themselves at Sugar Beach Sept. 24, The Maui News reported Wednesday.

The infection was also found in pygmy killer whales that stranded themselves at the same beach Aug. 29.

The whales had abnormal and inflamed lymph nodes similar to the whales stranded in August, suggesting “the animals were likely fighting some type of infection at the time of the stranding,” said Kristi West, associate researcher at the University of Hawaii Stranding Lab on Oahu.

There is no indication of an environmental toxin at Sugar Beach. The whales stranded last month were afflicted at another location before traveling to the beach, said a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration official.

“Whatever was going on with them, it’s going on somewhere else,” said Jeff Walters, chief of the agency’s Wildlife Management and Conservation Branch. “It’s just they ended up at Sugar Beach.”

The animals stranded last month were euthanized after tests indicated little chance for survival at sea.

Unusual food items found in the animals indicate they were not feeding normally. They had swallowed excess plant material including leaves and marine algae, while one whale’s esophagus contained a Moorish idol. A typical pygmy killer whale stomach would contain squid beaks and deep-water fish, West said.

One of the whales was in poor body condition and 33 pounds (15 kilograms) lighter than the other animal despite being slightly longer, West said.