Local Fishermen Lead Researchers to Group of 35 Stranded Pilot Whales

Posted on: November 16, 2016

If not for a few vigilant backcountry fishermen the recent mass stranding of thirty-five Pilot whales near Big Pine Key, might have gone completely unnoticed. On the morning of Thursday, Nov 10, a local fishing guide first reported a live whale beached in the area of Content Keys, more than 10 miles west of Big Pine Key. Members of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) were first on-scene to help stabilize one large adult 14ft whale and relay vital information to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) who immediately activated first-responders from Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder (MMR).  From their operations center in Key Largo, MMR immediately responded with a veterinarian, a team of experienced professionals and a specially designed rescue boat.

Following the two-hour drive from Key Largo, MMR coordinated efforts of a multi-agency team to make an on-site veterinary assessment, while NMFS weighed options for rehabilitative care.  Unfortunately, the whale was near death and her breathing was labored. Efforts to float and stabilize the whale were unsuccessful and the difficult decision to humanely euthanize the whale had to be made.

MMR rescuers then used a specially designed RIB (boat) to transport the 1400 lb. whale from the back-country to MMR’s marine mammal ambulance where staff iced it down before transporting to Key Largo, where they arrived just before midnight. Starting at sunrise, MMR investigators, together with a dozen students and a veterinary pathologist from the University of Miami spent the entire day making an examination and collecting samples that will be analyzed by NMFS. All of these data feed into a National Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Database that helps to guide resource managers.   

BUT… where there’s one Pilot whale stranding… there is usually more to follow. So MMR and NMFS remained on high alert. The following day, Friday 11 Nov., there were numerous (non-verified) reports of live whales stranded between Marquesas Key, all the way north to Whale Harbor Channel in Islamorada. With the assistance of the FWC, and close coordination with NMFS stranding coordinators, MMR staff responded to each report and stayed on the water until dark.

Despite the increased surveillance on Saturday and Sunday, and an aerial survey of the Gulf back country regions, no other animals were sighted or reported.  Then, following Monday’s aerial surveys, a visiting back country fisherman from Atlanta, reported seeing 8-10 dead whales in a dense mangrove area, just a few miles from Thursday’s stranding…. but, this report came late in afternoon and provided few details on the exact location as he was on his way out of town.

Early Tuesday morning, an MMR manager managed to reach him in Atlanta, and with new information, immediately dispatched from Little Torch Key to survey the backcountry area…. again, with the assistance of FWC and coordination provided by NMFS. When they reached the area… it didn't take long to locate the area as more than 100 buzzards were circling overhead. Still, even on close approach it was difficult to spot the whales that were literally embedded in and under the dense mangroves and marsh interior of the island.

It quickly became obvious that this group of  (33) short-finned pilot whales had been dead for several days. Judging by the state of advanced decomposition and considering water/air temperatures, it is possible that this group could have stranded and gone unnoticed for 3-5 days. The concealed carcasses had been heavily scavenged by vultures and sharks who remained active in the area.

As conditions were unsafe to get researchers in the water, MMR and FWC circled the island twice and confirmed a total count of (33) whales. Mothers with their calves were in small clusters, while several large solitary animals were observed deep inside the root system. It appeared as if the super high tides had carried the whales deep into the interior and then fell out from under them, leaving them trapped and almost invisible to the spotter plane.

Biological samples were collected, photo documentation was made and each animal’s position was recorded by GPS. Other nearby islands were searched and cleared before the researchers returned to the dock with an injured pelican that they rescued and delivered to the bird hospital in Key West, where it was treated for a broken wing.

We may never know for certain why this group of pilot whales stranded. Perhaps, they got caught outside the channel on a falling tide, perhaps the King’s Tides or disease were factors… maybe it was the gravitational pull of a Supermoon that misguided the group. Regardless of the reason, and like any 911 call… when any marine mammal stranding occurs, the faster the response… the better the chances for survival.

The Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responders operate under special authorization from the NMFS to respond to stranding’s in the vital waters of the Gulf and adjacent Atlantic Ocean… all together, this 10,000 sq. mile range represents immense logistical challenges and requires a combination and cooperation of resources from a host of agencies and organizations.

MMR continues to evolve and is working to enhance the capacity for stranding response throughout the Florida Keys and hopes to soon unveil a new and ambitious plan that will include strategic partnerships from North Key Largo to Key West. For more information, and to learn how you can support these efforts…. Stay tuned to this radio station.

In the meantime, if you need to report any marine animal in distress, please notify FWC at 888-404-FWCC.