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In July 1855 a Cape Cod fisherman told Henry David Thoreau that blackfish, the animals we now call pilot whales, "ran ashore in pursuit of squid, and that they generally came on the coast about the last of July." ' What interested
Thoreau in blackfish wasn't their accidental strandings, but the fact that he himself had just seen them purposely driven ashore for their oil, blubber and meat. "Leaping over the sea like horses," the whales were pursued by men and boys
"striking on the sides of their boats and blowing horns to drive them on to the beach." Thoreau expressed no sense of kinship with the whales, only a revulsion at the stench.' But kinship is precisely what was expressed on Cape Cod on
Monday, a sign of the nearly complete revolution in the human attitude toward whales since Thoreau's time. ' Fifty-five pilot whales had stranded themselves at low tide on a private beach near Dennis, Mass. Thanks to the efforts of
trained and untrained volunteers, 46 of the whales, which average about 13 feet long and 1,800 pounds, were returned to the sea when high tide came at midday.' To the volunteers who knew most about pilot whales and their frequent
strandings, Monday's rescue was only the first part of the story. The question was whether the whales would remain in deep water or beach themselves again. The tragic answer came Tuesday afternoon, when the pod ran aground again. More than a
dozen died during the day, and the rest had to be euthanized.' No one knows why pilot whales strand themselves. To the explanation given by Thoreau's old fisherman, many more have since been added. But strandings have always been common
among this species, and once stranded, the strongly social nature of pilot whales makes them reluctant to leave any member of the pod behind. ' Humans figured out long ago how to drive the whales ashore, but we have still not discovered
how to drive them permanently to safety. The pathos of Monday -- the sight of one species rescuing another -- was quickly overcome by the even greater pathos Tuesday, when an implacable urge drove these wonderful creatures to their death.