Time is running out for dozens of pilot whales trapped in shallow water off a remote beach on the western edge of Everglades National Park.
A team of biologists, veterinarians and marine patrol officers mounted an arduous, 25-person rescue mission Wednesday but an attempt to herd the stranded whales out to deeper water proved futile.
Six whales were found dead on Highland Beach, and the would-be rescuers decided to euthanize another four whales that were unresponsive offshore. That leaves 41 whales swimming freely in barely 3 feet of water.
NOAA hasn’t determined why the whales left their home ranges some 20 miles offshore and got stuck along the beach, but necropsies were performed on the dead whales to try to get clues.
The stranding in Everglades National Park comes as the U.S. East Coast has been hit by an unusually large number of bottlenose dolphin deaths that have been attributed to a virus that mimics canine distemper.
Pilot whale pods are known to follow the lead of an elder male, a benefit when it comes to learning migration routes. But the same trait can be the creatures’ demise if something goes wrong.
Biologists are uncertain how long the whales have been trapped off Highland Beach, she said. Even the live whales likely are malnourished and dehydrated.
Park rangers reported the stranding about 4 p.m. Tuesday, too late to get to the site before dark. Rescuers plan to return to Highland Beach on Thursday and even Friday to reassess the situation.
NOAA is the lead agency for the rescue along with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the National Park Service, the Marine Mammal Conservancy in Key Largo and the Marine Animal Response Society in Miami.
Highland Beach is at least a 90-minute boat ride from the nearest docks at Marco Island and Flamingo. Once there, rescuers had to walk 200 yards to get to the beach.
Rescuers are consulting with experts in other countries about ways to corral the animals and shoo them into open water.