By SUZETTE LABOY and CHRISTINE ARMARIO
EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK, Fla. -- Wildlife workers are returning to Everglades National Park in Florida on Thursday to try leading 41 pilot whales out of dangerously shallow waters and back to the ocean where they belong.
“We’re going to be cautiously optimistic on our way out,” said Liz Stratton, assistant stranding coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “We don’t know what we’re going to find.”
For now, the death count stands at 10. Six whales were found dead in the remote area on the park’s western edge, and four had to be euthanized. The whales were first spotted on Tuesday about 20 miles east of where they normally live. It takes more than an hour to reach the spot from the nearest boat ramp and there is no cellphone service, complicating rescue efforts.
Stratton said NOAA has reached out to stranding experts about herding whales to deeper waters, an effort that failed on Wednesday.
“We’re going to be working some of those new ideas today,” she said.
Workers from the National Park Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spent Wednesday trying to herd the whales toward the ocean, but the marine mammals weren’t cooperating.
On Wednesday, park spokeswoman Linda Friar said rescuers were trying to surround the whales, which were in roughly 3 feet of salt water about 75 feet from shore, and herd them back to sea.
“They are not cooperating,” Friar said Wednesday.
The short-finned pilot whales typically live in very deep water. Even if rescuers were able to begin nudging the 41 remaining whales out to sea, they would encounter a series of sandbars and patches of shallow water along the way, said Blair Mase, coordinator for NOAA’s marine mammal stranding network.
This particular whale species is also known for its close-knit social groups, meaning if one whale gets stuck or stays behind, the others are likely to stay behind or even beach themselves as well.
“It would be very difficult for the whales to navigate out on their own,” Mase said.
Federal officials were notified about the whales Tuesday around 4 p.m. Because of the remote location, workers were unable to access the site before dark. They arrived Wednesday morning and discovered 45 whales still alive.
“There were some that were very compromised and in very poor condition,” Mase said.
Four were euthanized with sedatives, and more could be put down Thursday if their condition deteriorates, Mase said. She described the remaining whales as swimming and mobile but said scientists don’t know how long they have been out of the deep, colder water they are accustomed to and could be affected by secondary consequences, such as dehydration.
“I don’t think we have a lot of time,” Mase said.
Necropsies were being done Wednesday on the deceased whales. Scientists will look for disease or other signs to indicate how whales got stuck in the shallow Everglades waters.