On January 23, 25 dead short-finned pilot whales were discovered on Kice Island in the Rookery Bay Reserve.
Q: What are pilot whales? Pilot whales are marine mammals that reach lengths up to 20 feet. They live in deep waters including the Gulf of Mexico and swim in large groups (called pods) of 10 – 100's of individuals. Pilot whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Q: Why did they come to shore? What caused this particular "mass stranding" event is currently unknown. Pilot whales are the most common species to mass strand in the southeast U.S. They are highly cohesive and when one animal is sick or ill, others may stay close by and become stranded themselves.
Q: Who was involved in the response? NOAA Fisheries is the lead agency on events involving whales, which are federally protected marine mammals. Their biologists and Marine Mammal Stranding Network partners from Mote Marine Laboratory, Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (biologists and law enforcement), and Rookery Bay Reserve.
Q: What was Rookery Bay Reserve's role? As part of the Southeast U.S. Marine Mammal Stranding Network team's response, Rookery Bay Reserve provided logistic assistance in the form of vessels and field personnel to help NOAA researchers and stranding network partners in their assessment. Also, as the managers of the land on which the whales stranded, the remains became the Reserve's responsibility once the assessment was complete.
Q: How do scientists learn from the dead whales? Scientists collected basic information and samples from every individual, and performed full necropsies (a non-human autopsy) on six of the least decomposed whales. Tissue samples will be examined in a lab to check for illness or other possible causes of death. All of this information adds to a bigger body of reference for greater understanding of the species, their behavior, and threats to survival.
Q: There were other pilot whale sightings in the Gulf around the same time – were they the same animals? Scientists believe the whales that ended up on Kice Island were the same ones seen in Gordon Pass, Naples Bay and Big Marco Pass earlier in the week. A smaller group of 14 pilot whales that stranded further north, at New Pass in Lee County, may have also been part of the same original pod. DNA testing is necessary to confirm this information.
Q: What happens next? As the managers of Kice Island, Rookery Bay Reserve has considered every possible option for disposing the whale carcasses and determined that the best course of action is to let nature take its course. Because the whales were discovered 24-48 hours after they died, the decomposition process had begun, resulting in fewer options for disposal. Given the number of carcasses and the fact that the beach is not suitable for burying (as is common in other situations) the decision was made to leave the carcasses on site.
Q: Will this be problematic for visitors to the reserve? No, the isolated location, rugged shoreline and shallow shoals adjacent to the beach make this particular location less attractive than other beaches in the reserve. Boaters are asked to avoid the island.
Q: Can people see the dead whales? Only from a distance. Because they are protected by federal law it is a felony to tamper with pilot whales, living or dead. Rookery Bay staff are working with partners including FWC law enforcement and private entities to patrol the area to ensure people are staying away from the skeletal remains. Rookery Bay Reserve and Mote Marine Aquarium will be seeking the proper permits to relocate skeletons for future educational purposes.
Q: What should people do if they see someone tampering with the whale remains? Notify the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission by dialing 888-404-FWCC or *FWC on cell phone