Pilot Whales Stranded In Florida: Officials 'Cautiously Optimistic' As Pods Slowly Swim Away From Shore

By Josh Lieberman on December 6, 2013 2:43 PM EST

stranded pilot whales
Eleven stranded pilot whales have died off of the Florida Everglades since Wednesday. (Photo: Reuters)

UPDATE 4:12 PM: NOAA Fish Southeast has tweeted a bunch of updates about the stranded whales. Among them are the following:

-- "Biologists less encouraged than before - whales were in deeper water yesterday, hopeful they were moving out to deeper waters"
-- "Anything could happen, whales could change direction, flight going up in the morning to locate whales again"
-- "Weather forcing team to shutdown operations today, start tomorrow at sunrise with survey flight"

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Thirty-five of the 51 pilot whales stranded off of the Everglades National Park in Florida are slowly moving away from the shore. A variety of agencies made up of 15 vessels and 35 people have chased the pilot whales into deeper water by banging on pipes and revving boat engines. The whales have been stranded since Tuesday afternoon.

"We are cautiously optimistic," said Blair Mase, coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's marine mammal stranding network. "Even though we are hopeful, this situation can go either way." Mase said that most mass strandings have bad outcomes, so even saving a few of the whales would be a favorable outcome.

On Thursday, 35 of the pilot whales moved into about 18 feet of water six miles from the coast. Eighteen feet is still a far cry from the home range for pilot whales, which is 900 to 1,000 feet; the NOAA says that biologists are hoping to get the whales to at least 100-foot water.

Eleven of the 51 whales have died since Wednesday, with four whales in such bad shape that they had to be euthanized. Another five whales have gone missing; they may have died and sunk. The NOAA said that the dead whales varied in sex and age and included juveniles to adults. Their stomachs were empty, a possible indication that they were in poor health.

Necropsies have been performed on the 11 dead whales to see whether disease or pathogens led to the stranding. Pilot whales are susceptible to morbillivirus, the disease which is also responsible for the deaths of hundreds of bottlenose dolphins since July. The results of the necropsies could takes weeks or even months.

It's unclear why the whales have stranded. Pilot whales mass strand in Florida more than any other type of whale; in 2012, 21 pilot whales stranded in Florida. The whales are highly social, and they don't leave any of their pod behind, even if some of the members are ill. That loyalty may be what led to their stranding.

"This species is very cohesive, so if there is one that is sick, the others will follow it to shore," said Mase. "Even when one is dead on shore, the others will stay there."

The NOAA will release more information this afternoon if the situation changes.

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