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Some pilot whales stranded in Keys saved, others die

Wildlife experts and volunteers in the Florida Keys were racing against time on Friday to save pilot whales that became stranded in shallow waters.
Staff members and volunteers from the Marine Mammal Conservancy care for four pilot whales, Friday in a temporary sea pen at Cudjoe Key, Fla.  Bob Care / Florida Keys News Bureau via AP
/ Source: Reuters

Wildlife experts and volunteers in the Florida Keys have rescued eight pilot whales stranded in shallow waters and are using boats and a helicopter to locate more of the animals, officials said on Friday.

At least 11 from the group had died after the marine mammals became stranded late on Thursday in shallows and on flats in the waters off Cudjoe Key, a labyrinth of mangrove-fringed islets in the Lower Florida Keys.

More than 100 people, including Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials and volunteers, backed by a flotilla of small boats and a Coast Guard helicopter, were scouring the area looking for more of the beached whales.

"Every hour is critical," Karrie Carnes, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) spokeswoman who was at the scene, told Reuters.

Mass strandings of pilot whales, a smaller whale species that has a bulbous forehead and can grow to between 12 to 18 feet in length, are quite common across the world, from New Zealand to Senegal.

The sleek black animals somehow become disoriented and run aground in shallows.

"Time is of the essence because every hour that passes these animals are ... exposed to sunlight, to the heat, they may not be eating ... so for those that are alive it is vital that we find them as soon as possible," Carnes said by phone.

The rescued whales, including one calf, had been transported to a floating protective sea pen where they were being cared for by vets and rehydrated.

"It's complicated. We're looking at an area of about 10-12 miles... this isn't a concentrated, on-the-beach kind of stranding," Carnes said.

"Even though some of these areas are quite shallow, it's still an open ocean," Carnes added, saying the Coast Guard helicopter would help to pinpoint more of the stranded whales.

The last such event in the Florida Keys, a "hot spot" for marine mammal strandings, occurred in 2003, when 28 pilot whales were beached.

Carnes said the goal of the rescue, which also involved members of the non-profit Marine Mammal Conservancy, was to get as many of the whales as possible into the protective sea pen.

This structure, formed by boom and skirting, shields the animals and their helpers against sharks and the elements while they can be checked by vets, rehydrated and fed.

"It's very important that these animals are kept wet and comfortable, they have towels and wet sheets that are over them," she added.

Carnes, based at NOAA's Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, said a variety of factors could cause such mass whale strandings: sickness, injuries, harmful algae blooms or disorientation resulting from manmade elements such as sonars.

In some past mass strandings around the world, experts have speculated the animals may have become disoriented by offshore seismic and sonar exploration by international oil companies, or even by the sonar systems of submarines patrolling or involved in military exercises.