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Whale rescue effort continues in Florida's Everglades as pods move to deeper waters

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Pods of 35 stranded pilot whales were moving into deeper waters of Florida’s Everglades National Park, raising hopes for their survival, officials said Thursday.

Three pods were located nine miles north of their original location on the Gulf of Mexico side of the park and moving offshore, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries official Blair Mase said at a Thursday afternoon teleconference, adding that the animals were in 12 feet of water by midafternoon.

Mase said the whales may defy the odds and reach their normal deep-ocean range.

By Thursday afternoon, 11 whales had been found dead and five others were unaccounted for, according to Mase.

The whales had been stranded in a remote area of the park near Highland Beach, more than 20 miles from waters deep enough to support them.

Earlier in the day, the U.S. Coast Guard had spotted two pods of whales “significantly north” in 12 feet of water swimming offshore near Seminole Point, Mase said.

The movement was a “rare occasion” and an encouraging sign, Mase said. She said the organization was prepared for the worst as mass strandings are often difficult to reverse.

Related: How whales lose their way: Toxins, tides and other troubles

“They’re still out of their normal home range,” she said, adding that the whales may be suffering from dehydration and malnutrition.

"They need to be in deep water in order to feed. If we can’t get them out, they could begin to be starving themselves," said Linda Friar, spokesman for Everglades National Park.

Citing a similar mass stranding in the mid-90s, Mase said, “We did have animals strand in the park area and they split up and groups were further south, but they all ended up stranding eventually.”

As a part of the new rescue efforts, teams from NOAA, the National Park Service and state wildlife organizations used noises, including aluminum pipes and engines, in an attempt to steer the whales away from the shallows.

“This particular area is extremely unique, it’s not herding them out of a lagoon,” Mase said early Thursday. “We’re herding them miles and miles. It’s very tricky.”

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Mase added that the teams had upped both their assets and personnel to about 15 vessels and 35 personnel broken up into different teams. The teams will focus on necropsies, assessing the live animals and herding them to deeper water.

Staff at Everglades National Park and marine mammal specialists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have been desperately working to move the whales after they were discovered on Tuesday afternoon by a fishing guide.

Compounding rescue efforts is the highly social nature of the whales.

"Part of the issue is that the animals are cohesive type of group," Friar added. "They're really resistant to leaving any members of their pod behind." 

It's unknown why the whales ended up in such shallow waters, said said Liz Stratton, a marine biodiversity specialist and assistant coordinator of the Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

"Sometimes, whales strand because they are sick. Sometimes they strand because they run out of water [or because of] parasites or other problems," Stratton told NBC News on Wednesday.

Adding to the challenge: the presence of sharks.

“There are sharks everywhere,” Mase said, adding that the sharks were reported to be feeding on dead whales, but not on the living.

Tissue samples from some of the whales were being collected and sent to a lab to help determine the cause of the breaching. 

Officials in boats monitor the scene where dozens of pilot whales are stranded in shallow water in a remote area of Florida's Everglades National Park, Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013. Lynne Sladky / AP