Wildlife workers in boats struggled unsuccessfully Wednesday to coax nearly four dozen pilot whales out of dangerous shallow waters in Florida's Everglades National Park, hoping to spare them the fate of 10 others that already had died.
The workers suspended their efforts after dark, but planned to return Thursday morning to try again, said Kim Amendola, spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is taking part in the effort.
Six of the whales were found dead, and four of the whales had to be euthanized Wednesday, said Blair Mase, coordinator for NOAA's marine mammal stranding network. At least three could be seen on the beach, out of the water.
The whales are stranded in a remote area near Highland Beach, the western boundary of Everglades National Park and 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.
"We want to set the expectation low, because the challenges are very, very difficult," Mase said.
Whales stranded in the ‘worst place' for rescue
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.
Workers also tried to nudge the whales out to sea earlier in the day with no success.
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, Mase said they would encounter a series of sandbars and patches of shallow water along the way.
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.
For remaining whales, outlook is grim
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 impacted 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.
As workers tried to coax the animals to deeper water, at least one could be seen a few feet from shore floating upside down with its head bobbing up and down. Three to four more could be seen on the beach bleeding.
Twenty-two pilot whales became stranded in Florida's Avalon State Park in Fort Pierce in 2012. Residents, state and national officials attempted to rescue them, but only five could be saved.
"It's not uncommon," Friar said. "But it's not something that happens a lot."
Mase said NOAA was consulting with experts in different counties with experience in herding whales to see if there were other options, but said she was not optimistic.
"The outlook ultimately does not look good," she said.
Officials monitoring virus outbreak among dolphins
It's too soon to know why the whales are beached. But Marine scientists are tracking a measles-like virus that is potentially linked to the death of 500 dolphins so far this year.
The culprit appears to be Morbillivirus, which is also known to infect pilot whales.
The NOAA calls the deaths an "unusual mortality event" -- or UME -- that is spanning the coast from Delaware to Florida.
The virus affects the lungs, skin, brain and joints of the marine mammals. There is no treatment or vaccine. It kills up to 30 to 40 percent of infected animals. Those that survive, develop immunity.
The virus isn't new. One outbreak in the 1980s killed more than 700 dolphins. Another was centered here in Gulf of Mexico in the 1990s.
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