Eleven of the short-finned pilot whales that survived an original stranding a week ago along a remote beach in Everglades National Park swam more than 70 miles only to die just feet apart from each other on another remote beach in the lower Florida Keys.
Around noon Sunday, a fisherman reported finding the mammals on Snipes Point, about six miles north of Sugar Loaf Key, which is 15 miles or so from Key West.
While it remains a mystery why a pod of about 51 whales initially stranded in shallow water more than 20 miles from their deep water home range, it was not surprising a few members ended up south in the Lower Keys, said Blair Mase, southeast marine mammal stranding network coordinator for NOAA Fisheries.
“Basically, it is history repeating itself,” she said, citing other pilot whale strandings that have occurred along the island chain. “Due to the makeup of the currents and geography, they continue to drift southward and end up in the general facility of that location.”
This brings the total of known dead whales to 22, with the other 29 unaccounted for. Last week, seven were found dead and another four were euthanized at the original stranding location at Highland Beach, which is an hours boat ride from the nearest boat ramp at Flamingo Marina in the national park.
Mase said its quite possible more of the whales will wind up dead in the backcountry of the Keys. A hotline has been set up for people to call if they find any more whales. The number is: 877-WHALE HELP.
“We just dont know whats going on in this group,” she said.
The Coast Guard auxiliary has been conducting aerial searches of the area for more of the pod, but had not located any more mammals in the Keys.
There was hope on Thursday that the majority of the whales might survive the stranding after about 33 of them were spotted nine miles north of Highland Beach in water up to 18 feet deep. But instead of continuing in that direction to water hundreds of feet deep, at least 20 of the whales reversed course and began heading south in waters that remain shallow along the Keys.
On Monday, a group of vets, biologists and volunteers from NOAA Fisheries and the non-profit groups Marine Mammal Conservancy of Key Largo and Marine Mammal Rescue Society of North Miami traveled to Snipe Points to perform necropsies on the dead. The initial results will not be known for two weeks and the complete result will not be available for months.
The vets are testing for possible diseases, including the morbillivirus that has killed hundreds of dolphins along the Atlantic coast this year. They also are testing for contaminants and biotoxins.
But from visual inspection, all 11 whales found on Snipes Point appear to be emaciated and malnourished, which could be caused by either disease and/or from being in shallow water for so long, Mase said.
While there was a large rescue response by air, land and sea of federal, state and local wildlife officials, as well as the volunteer groups, it is not known if their efforts and resources led to any survivors.
One animal activist who has been involved in previous mass strandings said the rescue effort should have been more proactive, with the whales herded to deeper water on the first day of the mass response with oil boom and plastic fencing.
“They simply observed these animals to death, and burned a lot of fuel doing it,” marine mammal activist Russ Rector said.