Whale rescue teams returned early Thursday to Everglades National Park, dreading what they might find.
A day earlier, in an effort that captured international attention, groups had worked fervishly in shallow waters on a remote beach on the western edge of Everglades National Park, trying to coax a pod of 41 pilot whales back out to sea. Several of the distressed mammals had already died.
The exhausted rescuers left at night fall.
When they returned the next morning, they were shocked at the beautiful sight.
“The pod’s gone,” said an officer from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The U. S. Coast Guard and National Park Service sent aircraft to search for the mammals. By mid-morning, they found the whales, surprisingly, miles away from the stranding.
Mammal experts said no one should pop champagne yet. The animals could easily re-strand themselves.
“This situation can still go either way,” said Blair Mase, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which led a 25-person rescue effort. “But we’re cautiously optimistic.”
If the whales continue to head in an off-shore direction Friday, the rescue operation will be suspended, Mase said.
It would be best for the whales to reach waters 900 to 1000 feet deep, but Mase said she would be relieved if they made it to 100 feet for now. Late Thursday, the whales, in three groups, were about six miles offshore in 18 feet of water west of Plover Key.
Still, rescue team members scrambled out to the surviving whales, where they used boats as a “gentle herding technique” to keep the animals moving into deeper waters, Mase said.
This continued for several hours. Finally, the crews stopped and began the long journey back to Flamingo Marina before darkness arrived.
A Coast Guard cutter continued to monitor the whales until sunset Thursday.
The ordeal started Tuesday, when a fishing guide spotted four large mammals lying in distress on a remote beach accessible only by boat.
John and Donna Buckley, longtime park volunteers who live on a houseboat in the back country outpost, heard the radio call and sprang into action.
After a 15-mile boat ride, they were the first to arrive in what would turn out to be a large federal, state and volunteer effort – by land, air and sea – to rescue the surviving members of the pod.
After arriving at Highland Beach, the couple looked at each other and said: “What do we do?”
There were now nine beached whales.
John decided to paddle his kayak over the shallow mud flats to the sandy shore.
“Oh, John, be careful,” Donna told him.
Pilot whales range from 12 to 18 feet in length and can weigh 2,000 to 6,000 pounds.
This did not deter Buckley, who stepped on shore and began a rescue attempt.
“I grabbed a whale by the tail. It was hard and shiny and pure quality black rubber,” he said.
He quickly found out he should have listened to his wife. Apparently not caring for Buckley’s rescue attempt, the whale fanned its tail back and forth with such force it “walloped me and knocked me into the water,” he said.
Fortunately, he was fine. Soon, park rangers arrived to help.
They managed to get five of the whales back into the water before darkness forced them to quit.
On Wednesday, the usually secluded wilderness – except for occasional campers – was buzzing with activity after the rangers called for help.
NOAA led a 25-person rescue effort that included the Coast Guard, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, National Park Service, the University of Miami, the Marine Mammal Conservancy in Key Largo and the Miami-based Marine Animal Rescue Society.
The situation had deteriorated overnight. Rescue workers found four dead whales. Two more would die hours later. And four were in such bad shape that they had to be euthanized.
The remaining 41 were near shore, in just a few feet of water, and showing no signs of leaving.
“This species is very cohesive,” Mase said Wednesday. “So if there is one that is sick, the others will follow it to shore.”
Video shot from the air showed a sad sight. Giant whales, easily visible in the shallow water, swam around not far from their dead.
Rescuers tried to herd the surviving whales out to deep water, separating the dead and dying from the healthier ones, by putting their boats in a semi circle, according to the Buckleys.
The rescuers tried to be non-aggressive, banging chains on the boats and revving the engines in hopes the whales would swim away from the sound.
“We could hear them communicate,” Donna Buckley said. “It was a high-pitched sound.”
They got the whales about a half mile away from shore when the rescue effort ended for the day.
On Thursday, the outlook went from bleak to bright, when a Coast Guard air search spotting 35 whales swimming about nine miles north of the stranding.
“We’re keeping our fingers crossed they keep going in the right direction,” said veterinarian Natalie Noll with Dolphin’s Plus in Key Largo.
A total of 11 of the original 51 were found dead. Five were missing, possibly dying and sinking to the bottom of the ocean.
The dead whales on shore, many already badly decomposed, were left on the beach “to become part of the food chain.”
Vultures had already begun to swarm.
Veterinarians and biologists conducted necropsies on all 11, trying to determine the cause of the death. The results will take months. And a cause may never be known.
One possibility is the Morbilli virus, a highly contagious disease that spread along the mid-Atlantic coast this summer, killing about 800 dolphins, Mase said. There has been confirmed cases as far south as Volusia County and a suspected case in Brevard County.
Pilot whales are believed to be carriers of the virus, so they could be infected but not necessarily affected by it. An outbreak of the Morbilli virus took place in the Gulf of Mexico in the 1990s.
Mase said there was some discussion on whether to help the whales, which could be carrying this virus and infect other mammals in the Gulf.
But after veterinarians determined that the surviving whales appeared to be fairly healthy, the decision was made to go ahead with the rescue effort.
For the Buckleys, moments like this area a thrill.
Said Donna Buckley: “This is why we are here.”