A distressed young fin whale foundering in the shallow waters off Sunset Beach prompted a frantic rescue effort Thursday by residents who plunged into the chilly ocean to help the mammal.
Despite their efforts, the whale died on a flatbed truck just 45 minutes into the trip aimed at saving its life.
"It's disappointing," said John Heyning, deputy director of research and collections for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, who had been called to the shore at the end of Anderson Street in Seal Beach shortly after the whale was spotted about 3 p.m.
What Heyning found was a 20-foot fin whale with no parent in sight. "It was very emaciated," he said. "We're not sure whether it got separated and couldn't feed, or just was a weak animal that couldn't keep up with its mother."
Over the next three hours, Heyning and an army of more than 20 volunteers used a huge net and pulleys to lift the 2-ton whale onto a flatbed truck owned by the museum. It was transferred to another truck supplied by SeaWorld for the trip to the marine park.
The plan, Heyning said, was to keep the whale wrapped in wet blankets all the way down. "Its only hope for survival was to get it to SeaWorld," he said. "It was a very skinny animal. It wasn't in good shape. Six years ago, we had one that lived."
The fin whale is the second largest animal in the world; reaching more than 75 feet in length. It rarely comes so close to shore, Heyning said. Indeed, he said, a live whale of any kind gets beached in Southern California maybe once every five to 10 years.
Despite the sad outcome, witnesses said, they found the spectacle inspiring.
"It was just amazing," said Donna Anderson, who lives nearby. "I just thought it was wonderful the way everyone rallied around this poor little whale. It almost brought tears to my eyes."
Heyning agreed. "People are disappointed," he said, "but they still feel good that [so many] tried to help. This was as much about the human spirit as it was about saving the animal -- it's always nice to see that humans can be really involved and work together."
The animal's carcass, he said, would still be taken to SeaWorld for an autopsy to determine the cause of its death.
"We want to find out as much about the species as we can," Heyning said. "The more you know, the better stewardship you can have of these animals in the future."