A total of 10 pilot whales have died and another 41 remain stranded in a remote area of Everglades National Park, officials said Wednesday afternoon.
A team that arrived on the scene Wednesday morning found six whales dead, and they were forced to euthanize four through sedation as a humane option, NOAA Fisheries Southeast marine mammal stranding coordinator Blair Mase said.
Rescue workers who are trying to herd the whales out of shallow waters suspended their efforts after dark, but planned to return Thursday morning to resume the effort, according to NOAA Fisheries spokeswoman Kim Amendola.
“The whales are about half a mile to three-quarters of a mile offshore, but they are not heading out to sea,” said marine mammal biologist Liz Stratton. “So we’re not sure what they’re doing, and we’re not sure if they’re not going to come back in the morning, unfortunately.”
Necropsies were being conducted Wednesday on the beached whales as scientists sought to determine their cause of death and find clues on why they ended up beached in the area.
The swimming whales do not show any signs of injury or trauma, but there is not a lot of time to save them, Mase said. The whales are out of their normal home range, and they may be dehyrdrated or malnourished, she added.
They are in Monroe County near Highland Beach, which is the western boundary of Everglades National Park. The closest deep water is about 20 miles west. In between are sandbars and channels that would be very difficult for the whales to navigate on their own.
But efforts to herd the close-knit animals out of the area, which is about an hour from the nearest boat ramp, have not been successful so far.
“They’re freely swimming about. They’re a species that likes to stay together, and we’re just not able to get them to move away,” Everglades National Park spokeswoman Linda Friar said.
There will be a multi-day effort to rescue the animals that would last at least through Thursday and possibly Friday, Mase said. But she tried to set expectations low, saying that the goal was to save the whales, but most mass strandings do not have a successful outcome.
The goal is to keep the whales alive during low tide, and then when high tide comes in, crews will try to get them back into the sea, Friar said.
The whales are slightly larger than dolphins, Friar said.
Mase said that when the team returned from the remote location, its members would brief National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials on how to move forward Thursday.
“So we are going to explore options for these animals. We are going to work hard to try to find out if we can save any, but we want to set the expectations low because the challenges are very, very difficult – the environmental challenges, the resource challenges, the location of the whales,” Mase said.
Officials are also talking with experts from different countries that have experience with herding, she said.
“The outlook does not ultimately look good for the remaining live whales,” Mase said.
The whales, who scientists say appeared confused, were originally spotted around 2:30 p.m. Tuesday near Highland Beach, according to Friar.
Friar said rangers and workers from NOAA responded and found 10 beached whales and the others in shallow waters nearby.
Four of the whales died but the workers were able to get six back into the water, Friar said.
"It's so shallow at low tide for such a long distance it makes it more difficult to get the whales to an area where they can swim away," Friar said.
It's not unusual for the whales to end up in the shallow waters, which stretch for hundreds of yards, Friar said.
"The thing about these whales, as the day heats up they'll have to keep them wet," she said.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Marine Mammal Conservancy and Marine Animal Rescue Society are assisting the rangers and NOAA Fisheries in the rescue effort.
The Gulf of Mexico has a very strong pilot whale population and this pod is very far from where they normally would be. They are very far from their deep water habitat and this makes it difficult for rescuers to "push" them back out to sea, Mase said.
"If we did push the healthy ones out, if they see one dead one they will come back again," Mase said.
She said a mass stranding occurred in Fort Pierce in 2012.
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