By: Chad Gillis firstname.lastname@example.org
The death toll started on Dec. 3 near Highlands Beach, one of the most beautiful stretches of sand and palm trees in all of Everglades National Park, and ended 48 days later, with dozens of dead whales documented.
A year later, scientists still don’t know exactly what caused these long-lived, deep-diving mammals to swim into the shallow waters of Southwest Florida. We may never know. With an average size of 12 to 18 feet, these whales were hundreds of miles from their normal range in the open Gulf of Mexico.
Twenty-two whales died, four of which were euthanized, and another 29 whales are still unaccounted for, according to Allison Garrett with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Garrett said results from skin tissue samples have not yet been completed. Scientists hope the samples will help determine the cause of the beachings.
Garrett, like many others who worked to collect and care for the whales, said she remembers long days, tired workers and an overall feeling of sadness.
“The uncertainty of what we were facing in terms of magnitude (numbers of whales), the challenges of where will the whales strand next and the logistics of getting teams to the sites are things that we still remember — these events are always sad, but we try to glean as much as we can and learn more about these whales,” Garrett said.
Pilot whales are extremely social animals, and they are known for following sick and struggling relatives into dangerously shallow waters. The thinking is that sick and injured whales would rather beach than drown, so they move into the shallows when death is eminent.
“We all want to find out why it occurred, and we all worked hard for multiple days to get the information that we need to help determine what caused this,” said Denise Boyd with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Boyd was one of dozens of biologists and specialists who helped identify and gather the carcasses at Lovers Key State Park.
Tissue samples were taken from skin lesions, fins, organs such as the liver and heart as well as the blubber and entrails at the Marine Mammal Pathology Lab in St. Petersburg. The blubber can show trace signs of contamination from chemicals or Karenia brevis, the organism that causes red tide in this region.
The beachings made national news, and tourists and locals alike flocked to Lovers Key — some out of concern for the whales, others out of sheer curiosity. Many onlookers shot photos with the cellphones. Some touched and poked the carcasses, some of which were already showing signs of rigor mortis.
Wayne Ziegler, of Bonita Springs, ran his index finger along one of the whale’s tail.
“I just wanted to see what it felt like,” Ziegler said on Jan. 22. “It was kind of like a dolphin. But it’s sad. I was hoping not to see any here today. I was hoping they’d all be offshore, where they’re supposed to be.”
Looking back, Boyd said she was proud to be part of a rescue network that included FWC, NOAA, Lee County Sheriff’s Office, Mote Marine Laboratory, Lovers Key State Park, National Marine Fisheries and more.
“It was definitely a challenge to get to all of the animals and provide humane care for those that were still alive,” she said earlier this week. “We call them charismatic megafauna because they attract a lot of interest.”
Nadine Slimak with Mote Marine said she was also impressed by the extensive teamwork.
“One of the things that struck me now was seeing how the teams and numbers of scientists, biologists and veterinarians came together during this. It really was sad to see all those dead whales.”
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Short-finned pilot whale
•Appearance: Larger members of the dolphin family. Black or dark brown with bulbous head and no obvious beak. Females reach average size of 12-feet, 2,200 pounds. Males can grow to 18-feet, 6,600 pounds. Dorsal fin is located far forward.
•Range: Occur in groups from 10 to 100. Tropical and subtropical waters in Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
•Reproduction: Maturity occurs at around 10 years of age, and females reproduce every five to eight years. Calves can nurse as long as 15 years. Males live to about 45 while females can live to be 60.
•Population: Estimated Gulf of Mexico, 2,400; Western Atlantic, 31,000 (includes long-fin pilot whales); U.S. West Coast, 300; Hawaii, 8850.
•Feeding: Hunt primarily squid but also eat octopus and fish.
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
•Dec. 3, 2013:Dozens of pilot whales were found stranded near Highlands Beach in Everglades State Park. The number of whales that died were never determined.
•Jan. 19: 23 Pilot whales found stranded in Gordon Pass, but eventually leave.
•Jan. 19: Later that day pilot whales were found beached in Lovers Key State Park.
•Jan. 22: Pilot whales, believed to be the ones stranded in Gordon Pass are found beached on Kice Island near Marco Island.