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NOAA Responds to Pilot Whales Stranding in Florida Everglades


About Pilot Whales

Short finned pilot whales, like all marine mammals, are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but they are not endangered. They are the most common species to mass strand. These whales are a tight cohesive species—when one animal is sick or ill, they may stay close by even if it means they are coming to shore. The last pilot whale mass stranding in this area of Florida was 1995, although there have been others in the Florida since then; most recently a mass stranding of 23 pilot whales at Ft. Pierce, Florida, in September 2012 and a mass stranding of 23 pilot whales in Cudjoe Key, Florida, in May 2011. The lifespan of male pilot whales is 35-45 years, and for females, at least 60 years.

Learn more about short-finned pilot whales.

About the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program

As part of the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program, NOAA Fisheries is the lead agency to coordinate a national stranding network to rescue and investigate marine mammal strandings. The stranding network includes volunteers in all coastal states who work directly with NOAA Fisheries stranding coordinators to respond to stranding events.

Scientists also investigate and document possible links between toxic substances found in marine mammals and the cause of death or stranding. These studies contribute to a growing, worldwide effort of marine mammal biomonitoring, not only to help assess the health and contaminant loads of marine mammals, but also to assist in determining human impacts on marine mammals, marine food chains, and marine ecosystem health.

To report an injured, entangled, or stranded marine mammal in the Southeastern United States, please call 1-877-WHALE HELP.

Help marine mammals in trouble using your smartphone. Learn more from NOAA Fisheries' Southeast Regional Office.

Blair Mase, NOAA Fisheries Southeast Marine Mammal Stranding Coordinator


3:00pm EST, December 12, 2013

On Tuesday, December 3, 2013, the National Park Service found a pod of short-finned pilot whales stranded on the edge of the Florida Everglades National Park and notified NOAA Fisheries, the lead coordinating agency for responding to marine mammal strandings.

Of the 51 whales originally stranded, 22 have died and 29 are still missing. The pod was last seen alive Friday, December 6. While the U.S. Coast Guard remains vigilant, we encourage Florida residents and fishermen to report any dead or injured whales to 1-877-WHALE-HELP. Citizens are also encouraged to use the new Dolphin & Whale 911 app to report stranded dolphins, whales, and seals in the Southeastern United States on their smartphones. 

We'd also like to thank our Marine Mammal Stranding Network members who do the heavy lifting for events like this--U.S. National Park Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Marine Mammal Conservancy, Marine Animal Rescue Society, and U.S. Coast Guard. 

Citizens are also encouraged to use the new Dolphin & Whale 911 app to report stranded dolphins, whales, and seals in the Southeastern United States on their smartphones. 

 Monday, December 9, 2013

Eleven whales were found dead on Snipe Point, near Sugarloaf Key in the lower Florida Keys, on Sunday, December 8th at approximately 12:00pm. A team from the Marine Mammal Conservancy (MMC) responded to document the whales and assess the scene. A full sampling team from NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center Miami, the Marine Animal Rescue Society, and MMC returned to sample the whales on Monday, December 9th.  The eleven whales consisted of 5 males and 6 females and were composed primarily of calves, juveniles and sub-adults. There were 3 adult females, 2 of which were pregnant at the time of stranding.  We may hear about more whales over the next few days as 29 whales remain unaccounted for.

Listen to a recording of a press media call held on Monday, December 9:

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The U.S. Coast Guard continued to search for the stranded pilot whales during the weekend with no luck. Around 1pm Sunday, a recreational fisherman first spotted the whales, and then the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission verified 11 dead pilot whales on Snipe Point in the lower Keys about 6 miles north of Sugar Loaf Key. These were part of the original pod of 51 stranded pilot whales.

The last time the group was spotted alive was Friday, December 6.

Listen to a recording of a press media call held on Sunday, December 8:

Friday, December 6, 2013

The U.S. Coast Guard continued to search the coastline and surrounding waters. Biologists continued monitoring the status of live whales and gathering samples from deceased whales. Early Friday, the rescue team helicopter reported 2 whales in Plover Key. These were actually dolphins. Weather conditions out on the water were poor and it was difficult to see. The water is murky, choppy, and sandy. There were 7 swimming whales that were free swimming in 12 to 14 feet of water, southwest of Plover Key. These whales eventually merged with 13 whales from the larger pod.

Another pod of 20 whales was seen 5 nautical miles off shore. The pods are moving very slowly, in a southward direction and inshore.

Unfortunately, this news was not encouraging. The whales were reportedly swimming more slowly and in a more disorganized fashion, which may suggest exhaustion, dehydration, or malnutrition. 

During the weekend, crews were on standby to conduct necropsies of any dead stranded whales and to respond to reports of live stranded whales. Aerial surveys continued during the weekend to determine whether there are any whales remaining or stranded in the area.

Listen to recordings of press media calls held on Friday, December 6:

Thursday, December 5, 2013

By Thursday morning, the pilot whales were not in their initial stranding site. As of 11:45am, Thursday, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter spotted three separate pods of approximately 35 whales spread over 1,000 yards (4 nautical miles) seaward of the Seminole Point/Plover Key area (about 9 miles north of previous stranding location)—on the Gulf Coast of Everglades National Park, roughly 65 kilometers south of Naples, Florida.

The rescue team grew on Thursday from 25 to 35 scientists and stranding specialists who can only access the whales by boats. Human safety on the water was a factor. Sharks were spotted feeding on the carcasses of the dead whales.

The rescue team positioned 15 boats to help guide the whales to deeper water, which was a distance of 10 to 15 miles, and the whales were moving in the right direction. By Thursday at 2:30pm, the whales were 6 miles offshore and in about 18 feet of water. The rescue team was encouraged that the whales had been moving offshore, but was still uncertain about what the whales will do overnight.

The team was unable to locate the remaining 5 whales from the original pod siting.

Listen to a recording of a press media call held on Thursday, December 5:

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Since Wednesday, a rescue team, including 25 stranding specialists and scientists, has been working fervently to save the whales. At this time, ten of the whales were confirmed dead. Attempts to herd the animals on Wednesday were unsuccessful. The whales were spread out, and the water where the whales were was shallow for miles with many areas of flats, making it challenging to navigate the whales into deeper water.