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Pilot whales on the beachJanuary 23, 2014

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

Learn more about the Reserve's involvement in the Marine Mammal Stranding Network


More Pilot Whale Stranding Information

NOAA's assessment

Scientists with NOAA Fisheries released the following information following their assessment of the whales stranded on Kice Island.

  • The team divided into two - one for necropsy and one external sampling team
  • Full necropsy completed on 6 animals, others were too decomposed to collect adequate samples from.
  • Sexes: 16 females (one was pregnant and two were lactating); 9 males; Total animals stranded on Kice Island, FL = 25
  • Of the 25, three were calves (2 males, 1 female)
  • There were no obvious signs of human interaction externally.
  • They were thin.
  • Plan is to leave animals on the beach. Rookery Bay will frequently check the island.
  • Animals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
  • Remember that marine enforcement units from various agencies patrol these areas.
  • The response to these 25 animals is completed.
  • No navy training operations going on at this time.

Check out NOAA Fisheries' photo album on Flickr

Pilot Whale Stranding - Background

According to NOAA Fisheries, pilot whales have stranded at least four times on Florida's coast since 2000. Details are as follows:

  • Everglades/Florida Keys, FL (December 2013) - On December 3, 51 short-finned pilot whales were reported to have mass stranded on Highland Beach in the Florida Everglades. Eleven of these animals either died on their own or were humanely euthanized, the rest of the animals swam back offshore on their own. On December 8, eleven of the remaining whales were found stranded dead at Snipe Point near Sugarloaf Key in the lower Florida Keys. 29 of these animals remained unaccounted for. Experts are still awaiting test results and no determination has been made on the cause for this stranding, but morbillivirus was not found in the animals tested.
  • Ft. Pierce, FL (September 2012) - 22 short-finned pilot whales mass stranded in Avalon State Park in Ft. Pierce. 17 of these whales either died on their own or were humanely euthanized on the beach. 5 whales, juveniles and calves, were transported to Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute for short term care. One was humanely euthanized on Monday, September 3rd. The remaining 4 whales were transported to SeaWorld Orlando for rehabilitation and were ultimately deemed non-releasable due to their young age. A 23rd pilot whale live stranded on the evening of the September 1st in Melbourne, FL but was pushed off by the public.
  • Cudjoe Key, FL (May 2011) - 23 total pilot whales. 8 stranded live, 15 stranded dead. Of the 8 live strandings, 2 were released, 2 were deemed non-releasable after undergoing rehabilitation, and 4 died or were humanely euthanized. The 2 non-releasable animals are in permanent care at SeaWorld (one calf, one with severe scoliosis).
  • Off Big Pine Key, FL (April 2003) - 28 pilot whales total. Seven of the whales were brought in for rehabilitation. Two of the whales died during the first two weeks of rehabilitation. Five were released after rehabilitation. The rest died or were humanely euthanized due to their conditions.

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