A Coast Guard helicopter found two free-swimming pilot whales off Plover Key on Florida's Gulf coast Friday morning, as the effort to rescue more than three dozen whales trapped in shallows near Everglades National Park went into its third day.
Thirty-five pilot whales that had been marooned near a remote beach at the parkhad been seen heading into into deeper water Thursday, giving rescuers hope that they would return to their open ocean habitat and avoid beaching. But as of 9:10 a.m. Friday, the Coast Guard had found only two whales, according to NOAA Fisheries, the main federal marine conservation agency.
NOAA plans an update at 11 a.m. in a conference call with reporters.
A Coast Guard helicopter located the whales several miles out to sea after they were found to have vanished from their previous location, a remote shoreline on the Gulf side of Everglades National Park, where several whales had already beached themselves and died.
Rescue boats converged on the area and used "gentle herding" techniques to prevent the whales from heading back toward shore, positioning themselves between the whales and land.
"It's definitely encouraging they're moving in the offshore direction and that they left the deceased whales, which is a good sign," said Blair Mase of NOAA Fisheries in a telephone news conference Thursday afternoon. "We are encouraged and hopeful, but there is no guarantee they will keep moving offshore."
The shortfin pilot whales entered water 18 feet deep about six miles off Plover Key and appeared to be heading farther out to sea, she said. They typically live in water at least 1,000 feet deep, and they have several miles to go before they reached water that would be even marginally tolerable for them, with a depth of about 100 feet.
Although nothing physically blocks them from deeper water, Mase said rescuers don't know whether the same factors that drove them toward shore the first time will drive them toward shore again.
The 35 whales are the known survivors of a pod that ended up trapped in a labyrinth of sandbars, channels and shallows near Highland Beach in Everglades National Park.
Of the 51 whales in the original pod, six beached themselves and died and four were found to be in such bad condition that they were euthanized. Another turned up dead Thursday. That leaves five whose status is unknown. Mase said it's possible they had died and sunk to the bottom.
Meanwhile, field necropsies were performed on the dead whales to look for disease, pathogens or other possible reasons for them to end up on the beach. Results could take weeks. Among the pathogens veterinarians will look for is the cetacean morbillivirus, which has killed about 800 dolphins on the East Coast and has spread to whales.
Although the 35 whales discovered Thursday were generally moving out to sea, they stopped and milled around at one point, and the boats positioned themselves in a way to discourage them from heading toward land. A Coast Guard cutter will remain in the area overnight and rescuers will return to the scene Friday.
More rescuers and boats have joined the effort to save the whales. Fifteen boats and 31 volunteers and wildlife officers headed out to the remote area, more than an hour from any boat ramp and outside of cell phone reception.
The Coast Guard and Miami-Dade Police Department joined the rescue Thursday, working with NOAA Fisheries, the Marine Animal Rescue Society, Marine Mammal Conservancy, NOAA Fisheries and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the National Park Service.
Shortfin pilot whales are highly social animals, and rescuers had feared they would stay by their dead comrades until they beached, too.
Female shortfin pilots typically reach a length of 12 feet and males grow to 18 feet. They mainly eat squid, along with octopus and fish, inhabiting a broad band of tropical and temperate waters around the globe, with their Atlantic range running from northern New England to southern Brazil.
Rescuers had been pessimistic Wednesday about saving any of the whales. But while they said the whales remain in considerable danger, it appears they have a chance of escaping into the open ocean.
"The mood is a lot more optimistic and hopeful," Mase said.
(c)2013 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.
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Original headline: Trapped whales head into deeper water
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