Time running out on whales stranded in Everglades National Park

Corey Perrine/Staff 
After conducting a necropsy volunteers and staff from NOAA, FWC, MMC wash bloodied hands in the Gulf of Mexico on a dead pilot whale Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013 at Highland Beach in The Everglades of Florida. Six dead pilot whales were found earlier today in a remote part of the park, part of a pod of 51 whales facing an uncertain future. Four pilot whales have had to be euthanized. Federal biologists report that 46 pilot whales are alive and swimming free.

Photo by COREY PERRINE // Buy this photo

Corey Perrine/Staff After conducting a necropsy volunteers and staff from NOAA, FWC, MMC wash bloodied hands in the Gulf of Mexico on a dead pilot whale Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013 at Highland Beach in The Everglades of Florida. Six dead pilot whales were found earlier today in a remote part of the park, part of a pod of 51 whales facing an uncertain future. Four pilot whales have had to be euthanized. Federal biologists report that 46 pilot whales are alive and swimming free.

Wildlife officials found scores of pilot whales stranded this week in shallow water in a remote area of Everglades National Park near Highland Beach in northern Monroe County.

Wildlife officials found scores of pilot whales stranded this week in shallow water in a remote area of Everglades National Park near Highland Beach in northern Monroe County.

Video from NBC-2

— Time is running out for dozens of pilot whales trapped in shallow water off a remote beach on the western edge of Everglades National Park.

A team of biologists, veterinarians and marine patrol officers mounted an arduous, 25-person rescue mission Wednesday but an attempt to herd the stranded whales out to deeper water proved futile.

Six whales were found dead on Highland Beach, and the would-be rescuers decided to euthanize another four whales that were unresponsive offshore. That leaves 41 whales swimming freely in barely 3 feet of water.

“The outlook ultimately doesn’t look good for the remaining live whales,” said Blair Mase, marine mammal stranding coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “I don’t think we have a lot of time.”

NOAA hasn’t determined why the whales left their home ranges some 20 miles offshore and got stuck along the beach, but necropsies were performed on the dead whales to try to get clues.

The stranding in Everglades National Park comes as the U.S. East Coast has been hit by an unusually large number of bottlenose dolphin deaths that have been attributed to a virus that mimics canine distemper.

Between July 1 and Dec. 1, 936 dolphins have died, including 91 in Florida, compared with the average of 113 dolphin deaths during the same months since 2007.

While unfortunate and heart-wrenching, the pilot whale stranding offers a rare glimpse into the health of the ocean environment and could inform decisions about how to improve it, said Stephen McCulloch, marine mammal program manager at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University.

“This is a huge opportunity for scientists and researchers,” he said. “This is a major stranding of great significance.”

Pilot whales, which form tight-knit social structures, are the most common whale species for mass strandings in Florida. In 2012, 22 pilot whales stranded themselves in Fort Pierce; 23 stranded themselves on Cudjoe Key in 2011, Mase said.

In the mid-1990s, pilot whales were able to free themselves from a mass stranding but then stranded again in the Florida Keys.

Pilot whale pods are known to follow the lead of an elder male, a benefit when it comes to learning migration routes. But the same trait can be the creatures’ demise if something goes wrong.

“When one is sick or in distress, the other ones typically will stay close by,” Mase said.

Biologists are uncertain how long the whales have been trapped off Highland Beach, she said. Even the live whales likely are malnourished and dehydrated.

McCulloch, at Harbor Branch, said it’s hard to predict how long the whales might survive and depends on their overall health and how exposed they are to the sun.

“They won’t survive there very long,” he said.

Park rangers reported the stranding about 4 p.m. Tuesday, too late to get to the site before dark, Mase said. Rescuers plan to return to Highland Beach on Thursday and even Friday to reassess the situation.

NOAA is the lead agency for the rescue along with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the National Park Service, the Marine Mammal Conservancy in Key Largo and the Marine Animal Response Society in Miami.

Highland Beach is at least a 90-minute boat ride from the nearest docks at Marco Island and Flamingo. Once there, rescuers had to walk 200 yards to get to the beach.

The remaining whales are swimming freely, but even a high tide won’t be much help for the animals because they still have to find their way through deeper channels and around sand bars in unfamiliar territory that is nothing like their deep-water homes, Mase said.

She said rescuers are consulting with experts in other countries about ways to corral the animals and shoo them into open water.

Odds are not in favor of stranded whales, she said.

“We’re lucky if we’re even able to save a couple,” Mase said.

POSTED EARLIER

Four pilot whales have had to be euthanized after getting trapped in shallow waters in Everglades National Park, NOAA officials reported this afternoon.

The whales were not responding and were not swimming and were sedated so as not to prolong their suffering, marine mammal stranding coordinator Blair Mase said.

Six dead whales were found earlier today on Highlands Beach in a remote part of the park, part of a pod of 51 whales facing an uncertain future.

The remaining whales are swimming freely, but even a high tide won't be much help for the animals, she said.

Mase said she is not optimistic that the whales will find their way through deeper channels to get to their home ranges some 20 miles into the Gulf of Mexico.

Rescuers are consulting with experts in other countries about ways to herd the animals but an attempt at herding this morning was unsuccessful, Mase said.

"The outlook ultimately doesn't look good for the remaining live whales," she said.

NOAA has not found a cause for the mass stranding, but veterinarians are conducting necropsies on the dead animals.

The whales likely are dehydrated and malnourished aside from any illness that might have caused them to come ashore.

A rescue team plans to return to the site Thursday and possibly again on Friday, Mase said.

"I don't think we have a lot of time," Mase said.

Florida is no stranger to mass strandings of pilot whales, including 22 in 2012 in Fort Pierce and 23 in 2011 on Cudjoe Key.

In the mid-1990s, pilot whales were able to free themselves from a mass stranding but then stranded again in the Florida Keys.

POSTED EARLIER

Federal biologists reported just before noon that 46 pilot whales are alive and swimming free off Highland Beach, where 10 dead whales are beached.

That is more live whales than had been found Tuesday, NOAA marine mammal stranding coordinator Blair Mase said.

Pilot whales, which form tight-knit social structures, are the most common whale species for mass strandings in Florida, she said.

"When one is sick or in distress, the other ones typically will stay close by," she said.

Biologists are uncertain how long the whales have been stranded, and even the live whales likely are malnourished, she said. Some whales might have to be euthanized to shorten their suffering, Mase said.

"The outcome is very uncertain for the live whales," she said.

Veterinarians are considering options to remove the dead whales to encourage the live whales to return to their home ranges in deep waters offshore.

A team of 25 people from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the Marine Mammal Conservancy in Key Largo and the Marine Animal Response Society in Miami is working on the rescue, NOAA spokeswoman Kim Amendola said.

NOAA isn't putting people in the water with the live whales for safety reasons, she said.

The rescue team includes three FWC boats with officers and two biologists that left from Marco Island this morning, she said.

The stranding site is at least a 90-minute ride from Marco Island and from Flamingo, Amendola said.

Once there, rescuers must walk 150 yards to get to the stranded whales, she said.

NOAA veterinarians are taking samples from the dead whales to test for possible illnesses that might have caused the whales to strand themselves.

Return to naplesnews.com later today for more on this developing story

Are you viewing on your mobile or tablet app? Click here to see NBC2 video.

© 2013 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

  • Discuss
  • Print

Related Stories

Related Links

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.

Features