Dozens of Pilot Whales Stranded off Florida Coast; Rescue Mission Under Way

In most cetacean stranding cases, scientists are unable to pinpoint the exact cause, though boat and Navy sonar noise are often to blame.

Dozens of Pilot Whales Stranded off Florida Coast; Rescue Mission Under Way

(Photo: NBC Miami)

David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

UPDATE: December 5, 2013—4:39 PM PST

According to the Associated Press, 35 of the trapped pilot whales swam into deeper water on Thursday, "raising optimism that the strandings of whales on Everglades National Park beaches may soon end on a positive note." While now in 18 feet of water, the pod was still several miles from the 900-to-1,000 foot depths they usually call home, said Blaire Maise, an official from the National Oceanic and Atmoshperic Administration.

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A gripping drama is playing out on Florida’s Gulf Coast, where 10 pilot whales have died and another 40 or more are stranded in three feet of water.

Of the 10 dead whales, six were found dead, while the remaining were euthanized Wednesday by officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Members of the dolphin family, pilot whales normally live in much deeper water off the Florida coast, and it is not known what drove them from their natural habitat, which is at least 20 miles from this isolated coast.

On Wednesday afternoon, 15 rescuers on four boats traveled to the remote site in the far western reaches of the Everglades, bringing scientists from NOAA, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and other agencies. The whales, they said, seemed to be confused since first being spotted on Tuesday at 2:30 p.m.

“The mission is to assess what is feasible with the resources and logistics we have,” NOAA marine mammal scientist Blaire Mase told CNN. She added that the whales might have to “be obtained by hand” and transported to deeper water, though she conceded that “we may not be able to get them offshore into their natural habitat.”

The area is reportedly like a maze, with a lot of shallow water. “There are a few deepwater channels that they can navigate through,” said Mase. “The outcome is very uncertain for these whales, and the resources are very limited in what we can do.”

In most cetacean stranding cases, scientists are unable to pinpoint the exact cause, though boat and Navy sonar noise and infectious diseases within the pods are often to blame.

Experts do know that all whales, especially members of the dolphin family, are exceedingly social—if one is in distress, the entire pod is affected. Thus, the animals refuse to abandon their beached or dead relatives.

“It is clear that these self-aware and sentient creatures share a bond that seems to override concerns for their own welfare as they linger in the shallows,” says Courtney Vail of Whale and Dolphin Conservation. “Even if rescuers are successful in refloating or pushing a few back to deeper waters, if any individuals are sick, compromised, or beached, the pod may linger and hamper efforts to move them into safer waters.”

No matter how painful a concept for the public to accept, euthanasia might be the most humane option “if they are ill, injured, or incapable of being returned to deeper water,” says Vail.

One alternative to euthanasia is capture and rehabilitation for public display in a facility like SeaWorld.

In September 2012, SeaWorld Orlando took in four young pilot whales that were stranded off the Florida coast, deeming all four to be unfit for release back into the open ocean. In July, one of them became stuck in a slide-out area at Orlando’s Whale and Dolphin Stadium, an incident caught on video by a family from Tampa.

Activists braced themselves for the possibility of SeaWorld intervening in the rescue, perhaps to collect some stranded whales for itself. “I’m surprised they haven’t shown up already,” one critic wrote online. “Those animals have a sign on their back saying ‘Free Whales.’”

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