IT WAS a sad but humane outcome for a three-metre pygmy sperm whale which beached itself on Back Beach, Brooms Head on Thursday.

After at least 20 hours of struggle, the whale was put down by lethal injection as the small group of volunteers, who made its last few hours more comfortable, looked on.

The whale was first noticed by Susie Johnston of Brisbane who was running along the beach about 5pm on Wednesday.

"I thought it was a shark," she said. "It was on the edge of the water, just in a gully."

Mrs Johnston said she ran back to the family's holiday house at Broom's Head and a whole group returned and worked to turn the whale around and take advantage of the high tide.

"It seemed to be bleeding a lot and it was much bigger than it is today," she said.

The extended family group, including six children, managed to get the whale to swim away from the beach at one stage.

"We let out a big cheer, but then it turned around and came back," she said.

"The kids were so upset, four of them were crying and the older two were fighting back the tears."

The family continued their mission until dark but eventually had to leave.

Expecting to find the whale had died over night, Mrs Johnston and her sister-in-law Teresa Eyre returned to the site on Thursday morning about 9am and found it still alive but fully beached in the mid-tide.

They began dousing the whale with sea water using a bucket and a container to keep it hydrated.

National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) ranger Dave McFarlane arrived on the scene and helped co-ordinate the bucketing of sea water onto the stranded beast and managed to recruit some more volunteers.

He covered the animal with a cotton sheet and towel and built an ad hoc shade for its head.

Though it was still breathing and flapping its tail occasionally, the whale's skin had peeled significantly and there were some abrasions around its right eye.

By the time Pet Porpoise Pool veterinarian Duan March arrived about 12.30pm it was showing signs of weakness.

Within minutes Dr March assessed that the most humane thing to do was to euthanise the animal.

He said given that the whale had spent a whole night on the beach and was bleeding profusely, it had very poor prospects for recovery.

He took blood samples which, he said, would be sent off to the US for analysis and gave the animal a lethal injection in the tail.

It died peacefully a short time later.

"Usually if there is a single whale stranded, it is either sick or injured," he said.

He said he couldn't tell what caused the sperm whale to beach itself but one possibility was the morbillavirus which had become more prevalent in marine animals recently.

It is understood the whale will be buried at a nearby sand dune but Mr McFarlane said a local museum may be interested in keeping the skull.

"These whales aren't exactly common around here and they keep a low profile well below the surface mostly, unlike dolphins."

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