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Stranded whales get some exercise

21st April 2003


BIG PINE KEY -- The only male rescued from a pod of 28 pilot whales that stranded in Content Passage showed signs that he could lead the six other survivors if eventually released, a rescue volunteer said Sunday.

The seven pilot whales took their first big swim Sunday, two days after beaching themselves in the sandy flats in Content Pass north of Big Pine Key.

Volunteers rescued the seven whales and moved them to a pen in the shallows behind the abandoned Mariners Cove resort on Big Pine Key. Eleven have died and the other 10 swam away and their location is unknown.

The whales, which were discovered in the pass by a flats fisherman early Friday, were loaded into a boat by crane Friday afternoon and taken to the pen, where they have been kept afloat by volunteers taking turns holding them to keep their blow holes out of the water.

By Sunday rescuers wanted to give the usually deep diving mammals a chance to stretch and exercise. Some rolled several times and seemed to take full advantage of the time out of the 100-foot by 100-foot pen.

The surviving lone male, dubbed "the big guy," showed some leadership skills, said rescuer Rick Trout, executive director of the Marine Mammal Conservancy. The whale watched over a small calf and nuzzled up to the oldest female during the swim.

"He is not the alfa male. He's all but shown that, but by George he shows he got what it takes," Trout said. "That's magic. It makes it better than a Walt Disney movie."

However, the whale is suffering from serious sunburn and has scrapes along his body.

Initial results from blood tests show some of the mammals are suffering from anemia, low white blood cell counts and possible kidney damage from dehydration, said Laura Engleby, stranding coordinator for National Marine Fisheries.

However, it will be several days before tests conclude if the whales are suffering from the morbility virus, which can be fatal in whales, Engleby said.

It's still unclear why the whales stranded. Necropsies are being performed on the whales that died.

One female whale is clearly not feeling well and has been aggressive toward other whales in the pen, Trout said.

The whales are being tube fed Pedialyte and water. Two of the whales ate squid that was offered to them.

The whales are being cared by volunteers from the community and the marine mammal rescue groups, The Marine Mammal Conservancy, The Florida Keys Marine Mammal Rescue Team and the Marine Animal Rescue Society. The volunteers have been consulting with veterinarians from several aquariums and oceanographic institutes. The volunteers have provided around-the-clock medical treatment to the whales, which as a species tend to strand in large pods.

In addition, hundreds of tourists and locals have made the trip to the pen to help with the animals.