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Two surviving stranded pilot whales in critical condition

In this photo released by the Florida Keys News Bureau, marine mammal responders carry one of five pilot whales that were transported to the Marine Mammal Conservancy in Key Largo, Fla., Tuesday.
In this photo released by the Florida Keys News Bureau, marine mammal responders carry one of five pilot whales that were transported to the Marine Mammal Conservancy in Key Largo, Fla., Tuesday.

Four female pilot whales that survived a May 5 mass stranding in the Lower Keys are still getting around-the-clock care at the Marine Mammal Conservancy in Key Largo.

Two of the whales were classified Tuesday as critical, while the other two were guarded.

A fifth whale -- the largest, a male about 13 feet long and 1,700 pounds -- had to be euthanized Friday. His death brought the number of known stranding casualties to 17.

The MMC's Robert Lingenfelser said the four surviving whales have pneumonia. They're receiving antibiotics and antifungals and are being closely monitored to ensure they're not in distress. Three veterinarians are overseeing their care, he said.

"It's something to be concerned about," Lingenfelser said of their conditions. "This could all turn around tomorrow, or it could go the other way."

Meanwhile, National Marine Fisheries Service spokeswoman Kim Amendola said the two males released May 7 in the Atlantic Ocean were several hundred kilometers southeast of Charleston, S.C., according to a satellite tracking tags placed on their dorsal fins by the Chicago Zoological Society.

The tags are powered by a small battery and send a signal to a satellite once every eight hours.

Amendola works out of the St. Petersburg office of the service, which is a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The service oversees the regional marine mammal stranding network in which the conservancy participates, and it will make the final decision regarding the whales' eventual release or transfer to another facility.

Experts do not know a lot about what causes marine mammals to strand. They conducted necropsies on each of the recovered animals, but it will be months before they have conclusive results. Even then, they may not get an answer. And while NOAA officials say they have no reason to believe there is a link between the stranding and last year's Gulf oil spill, they will also be testing for that.

Pilot whales normally are not seen in shallow waters like those off Cudjoe Key. The Keys last dealt with a mass stranding of the normally deepwater species in April 2003, just up the highway in Big Pine Key. A pod of another deepwater species, the rough-toothed dolphin, stranded off Marathon two years later.

The potentially long-term effort to rehabilitate the whales relies on donations of time, supplies and money. The nonprofit MMC needs about 24 volunteers each four-hour shift to work in the water and on land at the 3-acre facility at mile marker 102.1 bayside.

There's a "huge need for volunteers," observed Upper Keys resident Holly Hight. "Some of those people are working 24 hours a day. They're working really hard for these [whales]."

Hight volunteered Monday, supporting the smallest whale -- an 8.9-foot, 570-pound calf -- in the water. Hight was wearing just a sleeveless shorty on a gusty, wavy day, and the chill drove her out of the shoulder-high water after a couple of hours.

"It was amazing to hold them and feel them breathe," she said. "It was cold as heck, but it was worth it." A non-mammal created a little bit of a stir Tuesday. The MMC crew scooped up a lionfish and its venomous spines in the shallows of the sea pen where the whales are.

To volunteer time or donate supplies, call 451-4774, visit www.marinemammalconservancy.org or find the conservancy on Facebook.

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