At least 20 pilot whales that had once stranded as part of a pod of about 51 were still fighting for their survival on Friday, but the outlook has only gotten darker.
A Coast Guard plane spotted the whales, in three groups, on Friday afternoon in about 10 to 12 feet of water. They were moving very slowly and toward shore in a remote and shallow section of Everglades National Park.
“It is concerning because they are not moving in an outward direction offshore [toward deeper water], which obviously is what we were hoping for,” said Blair Mase, the Southeast marine mammal stranding coordinator for NOAA Fisheries.
It is not known what has become of another 20 or so whales that had appeared to survive the initial stranding on Tuesday and Wednesday along a stretch of Highland Beach. Eleven of the whales died, including four that were euthanized, after beaching themselves.
“Anything could happen, but it’s definitely less encouraging,” Mase said.
The disheartening news Friday came just hours after a Coast Guard Auxilliary crew reported that after searching an area about 400 square miles, and about 20 miles offshore, only seven whales were spotted. (The crew had misidentified two bottlenose dolphins swimming in 2-3 feet of water as pilot whales).
The report of the main pod not being found in the morning had led wildlife officials to hope that the whales had continued to travel west, back out to deeper waters and their normal range.
The Coast Guard Cutter Sawfish out of Key West had been monitoring the group of seven whales all day Friday. Those whales were milling about in 12 to 14 feet of water offshore of Plover Key.
Mase said those seven have appear to join back up with another 13 whales to account for the 20 spotted by the Coast Guard plane.
The whales are now about 7 to 8 miles north of the original stranding on Highland Beach, which is 32 miles by boat from the nearest boat ramp at Flamingo Marina in the national park. They are also about one mile closer to the shore than they were Thursday evening, when it appeared they were heading out to sea.
On Thursday the whales were swimming in uniform and diving, which is normal behavior. They had made it to waters about 18 to 20 feet deep, but had the opportunity to continue deeper and for unknown reasons did not.
This is a species that lives in deep water, often 1,000 feet or more. Mase said it’s possible that the whales are swimming more slowly because they are becoming more exhaused and suffering from secondary impacts of being in shallow water, such as dehydration and malnutrition. They also could be ill or diseased.
“These are really significant impacts that may show the ultimate outlook is not good,” she said.
The whales are in an area where the Florida shelf is very long and wide, creating shallow water for miles and miles, Mase said.
“It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on in the pilot whale’s brains,” Mase said. “They may have a sick member in the group that they are sticking by.”
The effort to save the whales began on Tuesday when a fishing guide spotted four beached whales and alerted the park. A couple who volunteers for the park and lives on a houseboat at a remote backcountry outpost were the first to help.
On Wednesday, efforts did not work to herd the surviving whales out to sea by forming a semi circle of boats and making noise by hitting chains on the side and revving the engines.
But when rescue teams arrived Thursday, the surviving whales were gone. About 33 to 35 of them were found nine miles north and about six miles offshore of Plover Key. Wildlife officials said they were “cautiously optimistic,” but also said the whales could re-strand themselves.
A Coast Guard aircraft will search tomorrow morning for the whales. What the search finds will determine what course of action will be taken. But now that the whales don’t appear to be healthy, it’s not likely that there wll be any more efforts to herd the whales back out to sea.
“They are getting more and more tired and at some point we need to stand back and let nature take it’s course,” Mase said. “If they need to come ashore and strand, then we can respond.”
Necropsies were performed on all of the 11 dead. So far, nothing has “jumped out” to provide a cause of death, Mase said.
It will take at least two weeks and likely longer for results to pathology results to come back.