MELBOURNE BEACH -- Two hours after a dead baby pygmy sperm whale washed ashore, beach walkers found its mother, struggling in the surf, about a mile away.
Biologists had lost track of the 8-foot-long mother whale at noon, just south of Spessard Holland Park, when it swam back into the ocean after beaching itself.
By 2 p.m., they found its 3-foot dead calf on Melbourne Beach. Two hours after that, the mother re-emerged in the stormy surf a mile to the south, near a 7-Eleven convenience store in the 2900 block of State Road A1A.
During heavy winds and downpours, four men held the mother whale steady, awaiting the arrival of state and SeaWorld biologists.
The bluish-gray creature wiggled in the sand, looking alert. It had a raspberry-like wound on its otherwise white underbelly. Biologists suspected the scratches came from rolling in the sand. They later determined that the whale likely had given birth within the past day.
The original call to help the mother whale came about 11 a.m. But biologists from Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute in Orlando were called off that rescue when the whale vanished back to sea.
At about 4 p.m., beachgoers stopped the first vehicle they could on SR A1A after spotting the mother whale beached again. They had pretty good timing.
"We happened to be in the truck that they flagged down," said Kristy Beard, a marine biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The beachgoers led Beard and the other state biologists to the struggling whale.
Pygmy whales, which can grow more than 12 feet long and weigh up to 600 pounds, usually die when they beach themselves. Few are successfully rehabilitated, said Megan Stolen, a marine mammal biologist with Hubbs-SeaWorld.
"It has to be in relatively good shape, which they almost never are," Stolen said.
Paul Lanzante, a tourist from Illinois, was one of the men that helped hold the mother whale upright before it fled south from Spessard Holland.
His 10-year-old son, Anthony, watched.
"I think it was cool, except the part where he beached himself," Anthony Lanzante said.
Dennis Baerhold of Winter Haven noticed the whale commotion from a beachside RV park, where antennas on several local news vans towered above the RVs. Baerhold decided to jump in and help hold up the whale.
"I saw all the excitement, so I just went for a swim. It's called 'swimming with the whales,' " Baerhold said.