Herding whales to safety is no easy task, but marine mammal experts have developed clever techniques that can save stranded whales, including many of those that wound up near Everglades National Park in Florida earlier this week.
Fishermen spotted 51 stranded pilot whales there on Tuesday. Among those whales, eleven died. Necropsy results are expected in a matter of weeks or perhaps months. Five whales remain missing, but the other 35 were herded offshore and are now in 12 feet of water.
"We are cautiously optimistic," NOAA spokeswoman Blair Mase told Discovery News and other media during a press conference Thursday afternoon.
She explained that pilot whales are normally in 900-1000 feet of water, "so they still have a while to go." As of Thursday evening, the whales were near Clover Key, 15 miles offshore, and appeared to be headed in the right direction away from land.
A coordinated effort involving the Coast Guard, NOAA Fisheries, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Marine Mammal Conservancy and Marine Animal Rescue Society deployed boats into the water. Via strategic maneuvers, the boats herded the whales away from shore and are now continuing to "escort" them back to safety.
CT Harry, assistant stranding coordinator at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, explained that "two or three vessels usually coordinate their movements in order to herd marine mammals, such as pilot whales. Together, the boats form a horseshoe shape in the water (surrounding the whales) and move in unison or in a zigzag motion."
He said rescue teams sometimes also release a water-activated "ping" device to encourage stranded marine mammals to move away from shore. That was considered for use in Florida, but ultimately was not needed.
"It doesn't harm cetaceans, but they don't like the sounds that it makes," he said.