© Elaine Legault
Beached whales are shown on the shores of St. Georges Bay in Judique
Sixteen pilot whales beached on a shore near Judique, Cape Breton, Tuesday morning, sparking a rescue effort involving about 20 people.

Andrew Reid with the Marine Animal Response Society said 10 of the whales were pushed into deeper water and survived. Six others died.

Local resident Maggie MacIntyre said people gathered at the beach early in the morning for the rescue effort.

"There were between one and four people surrounding each whale," she said.

"For as many whales as we could, people were just trying to keep them upright and trying to nudge them out to deeper water."

MacIntyre said the whales ranged in size, including a baby that was less than a metre long and adults that were up to 3½ metres in length.

She said they were told that if the pilot whales' blowhole isn't kept upright, the whales would die.

"We were just trying to do what we could until the tide got high — just keeping them upright. And as the tide came in there started to be a bit of a lift, we'd try to push them out into the deeper water."

MacIntyre said the group of rescuers grew from a dozen to about 20 people by the time she left.

"[The whales] were heavy. Trying to keep them upright took multiple people putting all of their weight into it."

One of those helping in the rescue effort was CBC host, Carol Off who happened to be visiting the area. She told CBC's As It Happens it was an incredible scene. She said residents came from everywhere to help, and watched one woman wade in wearing her pajamas.

A group effort

Reid said a local man informally took charge of the rescue. "He knew some of the dos and don'ts of refloating animals."

Reid told CBC News that pilot whales are social animals. They can become stranded when they're feeding, or when one of their own is injured, sick and beached.

He said the worry now is that the whales could become stranded again, something they have a tendency to do.

Reid is visiting the site today to collect biological samples from the carcasses for future research.

"If there are no re-strandings, we'll collect specimens and measurements from the animals that weren't able to be rescued," he said.

As for the carcasses, removal can be complicated, he said.

"Usually, disposal in Nova Scotia, it's left to whoever's land it is."

A spokesperson for Fisheries and Oceans Canada said five fishery officers trained in marine mammal rescues were deployed to provide assistance.