Hopes that a large group of pilot whales stranded in Florida's Everglades National Park may have gone out to sea were dashed when officials spotted seven whales that have now joined others swimming slowly in shallow water.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said it is less encouraged by the change of course because the whales aren't heading toward the deeper water they need to survive. The whales may also be affected by days of dehydration, officials said.
Earlier Friday, experts believed the whales might be headed out to sea, when they couldn't be spotted.
The fact that rescuers couldn't spot them had been a glimmer of hope for the pod after 51 whales were found stranded Tuesday and early rescue efforts were unsuccessful.
By Thursday afternoon, 11 whales had been found dead, and five others were unaccounted for, said Blair Mase, coordinator of the NOAA Fisheries Southeast Marine Mammal Stranding Network.
The Coast Guard thought it had found nine whales Friday, but two of them that were spotted by helicopter close to shore near Plover Key turned out to be dolphins.
The seven other animals were whales, and they were swimming in 12 to 14 feet of water near the area where the large group was seen Thursday night. Mase said the pod was milling about and wasn't obstructed from heading into deeper water.
It was unclear whether the seven were members of the roughly 35 surviving whales that had left the shore Thursday or were previously unaccounted-for members of the pod.
The group had divided into three pods totaling 35 animals, all headed in the direction of deeper waters, on Thursday. The pods were spotted in about 12 feet of water nine miles north of their original location on the Gulf of Mexico side of the park, according to NOAA.
Everglades spokeswoman Linda Friar said that rescue efforts were on standby and that park officials, the Coast Guard and NOAA would continue monitoring the located whales and searching for the missing larger group. Tissue samples from some of the whales were being collected and sent to a lab to help determine the cause of the breaching.
On Thursday, teams from NOAA, the National Park Service and state wildlife organizations upped their assets to about 15 vessels and 35 personnel to herd the whales, but the animals made much of the move themselves.
"Once they got beyond 10 feet, that was a good sign," Friar said, noting that the whales need to be in much deeper water in order to feed.
Friar said she was moved by all the support the rescue effort had garnered.
"There's something about these whales. The outpouring of volunteers and ideas of how to save them is pretty phenomenal," she said.
Erika Angulo of NBC News contributed to this report.
First published December 6 2013, 3:07 PM