By Dr. Becker
I know most of you have heard or read about the problem of stranded whales washing ashore on beaches on both coasts of the U.S. And as I’m sure you can imagine, it’s no easy task to herd these unfortunate animals back out to sea.
In December of last year, 51 stranded pilot whales were discovered near Everglades National Park in Florida. Of the 51, sadly, 11 died and 5 went missing, but rescue teams were able to shepherd the remaining 35 back out to about 12 feet of water.
Blair Mase, spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), explained that pilot whales normally stay in 900 – 1,000 feet of water, so at the time rescue teams turned back to shore, the 35 whales still had a good distance to travel to reach that depth.
How Stranded Whale Rescues Work
The effort to save the pilot whales involved the Coast Guard, NOAA Fisheries, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Marine Mammal Conservancy and the Marine Animal Rescue Society. All five agencies put boats in the water in a coordinated effort to steer the whales away from the shoreline and point them back out to sea.
The process worked as follows. Two or three boats at a time formed a horseshoe shape in the water surrounding the whales. Then they moved together in a sort of zigzag pattern to move the whales in the desired direction.
One of the dangers for beached pilot whales is the sheer weight of their bodies. At up to 6,600 pounds, these big guys and girls need the buoyancy of water to relieve pressure on their organs. One technique that rescue teams use to help pilot whales laying on sand is to dig trenches close to their bodies to help relieve pressure.
It’s also necessary to prevent their skin from drying out, so workers place wet cloths on them.
If the situation demands it, rescuers may attempt to carry stranded animals back into the water on stretchers. This technique obviously carries significant risk to both the whales and the rescuers. The profound stress of such an ordeal can kill a marine mammal on the spot.
In an update to this story, sadly, 20 of the 35 pilot whales backtracked the day after they were escorted out to sea. Experts believe the whales were possibly sick or exhausted from the stranding.
The day after the 20 were spotted heading in the wrong direction, no sightings of any of the whales were reported by air or by sea, and search teams were called off. Rescuers hope the whales have moved to deeper water, but it’s possible they all sank to the bottom of the ocean, according to an NOAA spokesperson.
The behavior of marine mammals in mass strandings is unpredictable. According to Mase of the NOAA, a similar event took place around 20 years ago when a group of beached whales re-stranded themselves after swimming back out to sea.
Scientists hope the 11 dead whales from the Everglades event will provide clues as to why they beached themselves. Mase said possible causes include changing currents or water temperature, or the Morbillivirus.
What to Do If You Encounter a Stranded Whale or Other Marine Mammal
If you come upon a stranded whale or other marine species on the beach, you should contact local authorities immediately, according to Janelle Schuh, stranding coordinator for Mystic Aquarium. Don’t approach the animal – simply observe it from a good distance away.