The bodies of at least 38 whales have washed up on a Dakar beach and wildlife officials say as many as 100 swam up close to the shore.
Villagers living nearby said the whales were spotted late Tuesday night, veering closer and closer to the coast as the tide came in. By Wednesday morning many were beached.
Technicians with the World Wildlife Fund, an environmental organization, said they had counted at least 38 carcasses — most larger than an adult man — strewn across a long stretch of sand.
By afternoon, as many as 60 whales had returned to the ocean. It was not immediately known what type of whales they were, but World Wildlife Fund employee Ibrahim Mat Dia said their size and coloring indicated they were either pilot whales or melon-headed whales.
Children waded into the water, trying to shoo away other whales trying to swim inland. Fishermen tied a cable to one of the beached whales and used a wooden boat to tow it out to sea.
Some people placed a roller used to move boats under the body of yet another whale and tried to push it toward the water. They gave up when they realized the animal was nearing death.
But they were able to save a pregnant whale and her calf shortly after the whale gave birth on the beach.
Dia said it was possible the whales had mistakenly followed fish into water that was too shallow for them, or that their natural sonar was not functioning.
It also may have been that the pack's leader got sick or ran into trouble, he said.
"They travel in groups and when one has a problem, all of them will follow," he said.
When it was clear that many were dead, children began playing on the bodies, bouncing on the carcasses like trampolines. They poured water on another carcass and used it as a slide.
Crowds gathered around each body. People touched the carcasses with their feet, making the blubber jiggle. Some carved their names into the whales' skin.
Some villagers began cutting pieces off the dead whales, saying they planned to use the blubber for massage oil.
Soon a construction company, working on a nearby road, was called in to help remove the bodies. They used bulldozers to pick up the carcasses and place them into a dump truck. So many whales were piled in the truck that within hours they were visible over the metal sides of the back.
"We can't leave them here for people to eat. We don't know what they died of, what diseases they might have," said Mamadou Fall, the head foreman of CSE, the construction firm.