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Five stranded pilot whales delivered to Key Largo rehab facility

The five survivors of Thursday's pilot whale stranding off Cudjoe Key arrived early Tuesday at Key Largo's Marine Mammal Conservancy, where the next stage of their rehabilitation will begin.

MMC's Robert Lingenfelser said the goal there will be to get the whales healthy enough to return them to the wild, like the two podmates released in deep Atlantic waters on Saturday. There's no timeline for that, and no guarantees.

The marine mammal group is seeking volunteers to help with the whales at its facility. Volunteers work in four-hour shifts. Interested people should call (305) 451-4774.

The move began shortly before 3 a.m. down on Cudjoe. It took a crane and lots of muscle to transfer the mammals at low tide from the sea pen, where they've been since at least early Friday morning, and into a 48-foot refrigerated truck from Publix.

NOAA spokeswoman Karrie Carnes said the move was timed so the whales' feeding and medication schedules wouldn't be interrupted. Nevertheless, the move would be a stressful one for the whales. There were vets and husbandry folks aboard the truck to monitor their conditions and keep them wet.

Staging for the move started Monday night. Once the transfer started, it took just a little over an hour.

The five mammals weigh from 600 pounds to nearly 1,800 pounds each and are 8.9 feet to 13 feet long. The four females and five males were loaded starting with the smallest, a calf.

Marine mammal rescuers, with the help of at least 10 Key West-based U.S. Navy Seabees, loaded each animal into a stretcher and carried all but one from the water to the back of the truck, where the crane helped lift it up so it could be pulled in to rest on a foam pad. It took at least a dozen men to move each whale.

When it came time to load the large male, the crane swung to water's edge, where it was hooked to his stretcher to bridge the 100-or-so foot distance from the water to the truck. Even with the crane's help, it took lots of hands to boost him into the back.

As soon as he was settled in and the truck door came down, the assembled crowd of mostly volunteers erupted into applause. The truck headed up Blimp Road toward U.S. 1, and the remaining skeleton crew of volunteers started to pack up.

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Two of seven pilot whales that survived a mass stranding Thursday off Cudjoe Key were released late Saturday afternoon in the Atlantic Ocean. The release from a barge happened in about 530 feet of water nine miles offshore.

Five other whales remain at the end of Blimp Road in a sea pen, where they receive around-the-clock care from a host of experts and volunteers. Saturday's release buoyed the spirits of the dozens of people working tirelessly on scene at the end of Blimp Road.

Better news came Sunday, when the Chicago Zoological Society reported that the satellite tags placed on the two showed they were in the Straits of Florida, headed north to the Gulf Stream, NOAA's Karrie Carnes said. The society's Randy Wells, who works out of Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, came down over the weekend to place the tags.

Two of the remaining whales were classified Monday as critical, and the other three as guarded. They were receiving broad-spectrum antibiotics, hydration and either a vitamin-rich milk substitute or a calorie-rich fish gruel.

The death toll from the stranding rose to 14 over the weekend, after an FWC boat found a dead whale in Bow Channel late in the afternoon. Aerial surveillance Saturday saw no more signs of whales, Carnes said.

The pair of males released were the strongest of the seven. Each weighs more than 1,000 pounds; they were 12 and 13 feet long. MMC's Suzy Roebling says the larger one was slid into the water first and was virtually motionless, eying the boat. When the smaller one splashed in, they got side by side and dove. The crew on the barge saw them surface in the distance, swimming steadily away.

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Pilot whales are one of the largest members of the dolphin family; only killer whales are larger.

The males may grow to 20 feet long and weigh 3 tons. Females generally are smaller, with a maximum size of 16 feet and 1.5 tons. The pilot whales in the Cudjoe stranding range from 8.9 feet to 13 feet long. There are four females and one male in the sea pen.

The whales are a highly social species, commonly known to travel in pods of 20 to 90. That tendency to remain in large groups also can lead to mass strandings.

Still, "We have no idea what caused the stranding and we shouldn't be guessing," cautioned Doug Mader, a Marathon veterinarian who was among the first responders who was in the water checking on the animals' condition.

Mader explained the physiological stress that transport puts on the whales. "We would have to put them in a large truck," he said. "It's not going to be easy. They weigh 700 pounds; all of the weight is pressed down on their lungs and heart, and it makes it hard for them to breathe and pump blood."

The response effort involves a host of organizations and agencies, including the Key Largo-based Marine Mammal Conservancy, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Southeast Marine Mammal Stranding Network, U.S. Coast Guard, SeaWorld, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota. Volunteers have included U.S. Navy Seabees and students from the University of Miami and Florida Keys Community College, as well as interested residents and visitors.

Veterinarians were in the water on Friday, taking bloodwork and determining the ages and sex of the remaining whales. The whales' breathing could easily be heard from shore, and occasionally a trilling kind of squeal would come from one in the pen fashioned from oil boom and fencing.

Inside the pen, wetsuit-clad volunteers -- two to three per whale -- help support the weakened mammals in the water so they don't sink and drown. The volunteers have to take care to steer clear of the powerful fluke, which could do serious damage.

Jan Rylander of Key West showed up about 11:30 Thursday night. She was in the water with the whales overnight and back in again Friday morning, flashing back to the hours she spent helping with a pilot whale stranding eight years ago.

She describes the hold as a "cradle. We don't want them to feel like they're trapped, or hurt themselves thrashing around. We try to keep them calm, and wet their dorsal fin."

Thursday, Marine Mammal Conservancy-led rescue teams, with help from the FWC, raced the setting sun and receding tide to find and assess the large mammals, which were scattered in pairs and trios from 200 feet to seven miles offshore. They were found at low tide, with some in ankle-deep water.

Six of the whales were brought close to shore overnight and placed in the pen, at the end of Blimp Road to the right of a boat ramp.

At least three were trapped in mangroves overnight from Thursday to Friday because they thrashed when rescuers tried to move them. "We just couldn't get to them," Mader said.

But on Friday morning, two more were brought into the pen, which is designed to keep the whales in and predators out. One had to be euthanized Friday night; the other was one of the two released Saturday.

Distinguished by their rounded heads and slight beaks, pilot whales can dive a quarter-mile deep in pursuit of squid, their favorite food fish. They prefer tropical to temperate waters, ranging in the Atlantic from South America to New Jersey.

The last mass stranding of whales in the Keys was in the spring of 2003, when 28 pilot whales stranded themselves on flats off the Content Keys. Seven were moved to a makeshift rehabilitation site in a Big Pine Key canal. After months of around-the-clock care, five were released off the Keys -- a landmark event in the annals of whale and dolphin rescue efforts.

The Marine Mammal Conservancy operates from a three-acre bayfront site at mile marker 102.2 in Key Largo. The volunteer organization, founded in 1995, responds to marine-mammal strandings from mainland South Florida to Key West as a recognized rescue group by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

In 2005, it was a lead group responding to the stranding of about 70 rough-toothed dolphins off of Marathon. The conservancy worked to rehabilitate 26 surviving dolphins and eventually was able to release seven back to the wild.

The conservancy also was active in the 2009 rehabilitation and release of Cutter, a small Atlantic spotted dolphin found near the U.S. Coast Guard station in Key West.

In 2007, the group rescued Castaway, a deaf dolphin that stranded repeatedly before being transported to Key Largo. Castaway gave birth but its calf, Wilson, did not survive long.

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