Thursday, May 5, a massive stranding response team of skilled veterinarians, and volunteers – more than 500 strong — joined forces with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) and Marine Mammal Conservancy (MMC) staff to save survivors of a pod of weakened pilot whales stranded in treacherously shallow Gulf of Mexico waters among mangroves near Cudjoe Key.
The nation’s eyes were trained on the scores of people working feverishly to save survivors, who, despite shifting sand bars, coral heads and changing tides, faced tenuous futures.
By Friday morning, seven live whales were safely corralled in a sea pen, a containment area functioning as a triage site. A makeshift tent camp bustled with wetsuit-clad men and women, charting vital signs, fielding calls from search and recovery boats (sadly, 14 whales perished), stockpiling food, water, trucks, transportation vehicles, boats, personnel and equipment.
Soon, there was a mobile veterinary laboratory.
During the flurry of activity, the whales remained calm.
Volunteers worked tirelessly in four-hour shifts, day and night, buoying the whales at the surface to breathe, keeping them wet and covered from the sun, hydrated and tube-fed with Pedialyte and a liquid chum.
Saturday, after collecting and analyzing blood and tissue samples, morphometrics (body measurements) and tagging dorsal fins with tracking devices, veterinarians deemed two male pilot whales viable to be released.
Watching the crane-laden barge gingerly hoist each of the two whales into slings was a breathtaking, nerve-wracking blip in time. Slowly settling the whales on the deck, careful not to crush their heart and lungs beneath their own weight, teams kept them wet and covered in zinc to prevent blistering in the hot afternoon sun.
Zooming my camera within inches of the first-loaded whale, my breath caught — his giant doe eye rolled up at me, looked into me. I was awash in guilt over the strange situation he was in, amazed and blessed I could be so close.
“It’s going to be okay, buddy. Hang in there,” I said quietly.
Under way, volunteers sponged water over the whales’ delicate skin, while veterinarians monitored vital signs and respiration. The survival of these mammals was paramount.
Finally, we reached 523 feet, nine miles offshore.
Videographer Bob Care and I scurried within safe distance of the barge, as eight people grabbed the sling’s straps, maneuvering the whales forward to easily slip off the edge of the foam padding into the blue.
The first whale dived down, surfaced and popped his blowhole like a snorkel, pausing, almost beckoning to the second, “Are you ready? Let’s go.”
Immediately, the second whale entered the water. The pair dove deep and disappeared. It was magical. The group of us left watching at the surface waited a moment, then whooped and hollered. They’d made it!
Exhausted and exhilarated, volunteers returned to the pen area, greeted by the remaining five whales’ squeals and squeaky chatter — a reminder they are not out of the woods yet.
Early Tuesday, May 10, experts successfully transported these five to a rehabilitation center 82 miles away in Key Largo, in a temperature-controlled Publix Super Markets’ semi-trailer.
Rehabilitation times could take months, but perhaps Blair Mase, NOAA southeast stranding coordinator, best summed up the combined efforts to safely move the animals.
“It takes a village to save some whales.”
Note: Since being transported to Key Largo, one of the five survivors at the Marine Mammal Conservancy was euthanized due to severe illness. Four pilot whales remain at the center, convalescing, and are reportedly responding to medical treatments.