On April 18th a pod of 28 whales beached themselves in the Content Passage of the lower Florida Keys. Volunteers were able to rescue seven of them and brought them to Big Pine Key for rehabilitation, first to a pen outside the old Mariner Resort (the site of the last pilot whale rehab in ’95) and then to the Old Swimming Hole at the west shore of Big Pine on US1 and Pine Channel.
Under the hands-on direction of the Marine Mammal Conservancy founders Rick Trout and Robert Lingenfelser, five survived and thrived. The youngest is a calf called Number 7 or “the baby”, a male approximately 7 feet long and 350 plus pounds. He was a nursing calf when rescued, and was weaned to fish in rehab.
His release was a big question mark for some weeks, as the overseeing government body, (National Marine Fisheries) consulted with scientists, consultants and staff over the viability of the animal.
Volunteers and others lobbied for a chance. Whether or not he will be able to hunt in the wild and survive may be a legitimate question. However, his chances for survival in captivity are also limited. Pilot whales live an average of 21 months in captivity – less than two years.
Had he not been rescued he would not have lived, and though his chances for survival in the wild may not be as strong as the older whales, he deserves the opportunity to live and learn to hunt in the wild.
The largest is called Number 3 or the "Dark Angel," as she has been known to bite – when provoked. Mostly she is alone, hanging out separately from the “Fearsome Foursome” and moving very little. She grew very attached to a yellow boom, and generally follows it wherever it is pulled. She is pictured in the Flash animation at the top of the page in some of her livlier moments.
Number 3 is nearly 11 feet, close to 800 pounds and probably in her mid teens. It’s very hard to determine the age of pilot whales, as we know so little about them. A tooth could be pulled and the rings counted, as on trees, but no one would consider doing that, so guesstimates must do.
The other four often play in the lagoon, diving, rolling, breaching, blowing bubbles and hanging upside down under water, occasionally pushing their flukes high into the air.
The community of Big Pine, the Lower Keys and Key West, rose to support the rehabilitation of the whales, donating time, money and goods to aid the effort. Volunteers (locals and tourists alike) babysat the whales in the water around the clock, at first holding them afloat so that they could breathe, later just hanging close by “in case” and then only coming in the water to feed them. Eventually food was thrown from the shore, usually a dead fish diet of smelt, herring and their prey of choice in the wild, squid.
Local businesses donated goods and services too numerous to mention, and everyone bought t-shirts or dropped a donation in the bucket to support the rescue and release. When Warren Dedrick of Marlin Capitol offered MMC a $10,000 matching grant, Ritchie Moretti of the Turtle Hospital in Marathon wrote a check for $1,000. A few days later the Big Pine Lower Keys Rotary Club added another $1,000 to the pot, and an individual Rotary member added yet another $1,000. A Colorado donor sent $5,000 and with smaller donations, the challenge was met.
It is not know why these whales stranded themselves; indeed, it’s not known for certain why marine mammals strand, but it is believed that, being air breathers, they seek shallow water when sick or old so that they don’t have to hold themselves up to breathe. Pilot whales are “family oriented” and the pod members follow the sick into the shallows.
Once in shallow water, they are all unable to feed, and since they get their water from the fish they eat, they become dehydrated as well as malnourished, and sunburned. Their lungs are not meant to support their weight, as they are used to diving great depths (the largest have been known to dive as deep as 1800 feet.). The stress on their lungs invariably causes stranded pilot whales to develop respiratory problems. This group developed pneumonia.
The stranding was concurrent with a red tide responsible for the death of more than 20 manatees, but it’s not known whether this stranding is related.
The five whales were released on Sunday, August 10, 2003.
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