From the afternoon of November 2, 2020, well into the next morning, 120 short-finned pilot whales washed ashore near Panadura, Sri Lanka in the largest mass beaching the country has ever seen.

Short-finned pilot whales are native to every ocean, the largest of the oceanic dolphins after the orca. They often reach 20 feet long and can weigh over 7,000 pounds. And for reasons no one knows, they are notorious for beaching themselves. Not just alone, but in whole groups. This tendency has even been used successfully in hunting them and their close cousins, the long-finned pilot whales, which is still done in the Faroe Islands and Greenland. While no one knows what their numbers are, neither species of pilot whale is on the endangered species list.

The massive pod beaching themselves in Sri Lanka could have been following a sick or high-status family member, who mistakenly ventured into shallow waters on the falling tide, or possibly the pod could have been trying to escape a region of poor water quality. These are both reasons pilot whales have been theorized to beach, but no one really knows. Regardless of why, the residents of Panadura weren’t going to stand by and watch so many short-finned pilot whales die on that beach.

Overnight, the national Marine Environment Protection Authority, the local navy and coast guard, and scores of volunteers worked to return the whales to the ocean. But they were all braced for a massive tragedy.

Not even two months ago, in September, more than 470 short-finned pilot whales were stranded on a beach in Tasmania, and fewer than one in four survived after massive rescue efforts that took five days.

But by noon on Tuesday, the team of rescuers got to look out over a whale-less beach, and so far, only two have been reported as dead. Those numbers are uncertain, of course, but even to have hope that so many survived is a wonderful thing.

Photo: Short-finned pilot whales off the coast of Tenerife. Credit: Shutterstock