MIAMI (Reuters) - Wildlife experts, coast guards and volunteers in the Florida Keys were racing against time on Friday to save a group of at least 18 pilot whales which became stranded in shallow waters.
After working through the night, the rescue operation involving more than 100 people and a flotilla of small boats had managed to transfer seven of the beached whales, including one calf, to a protective sea pen for examination by vets.
Two whales out of the 18 originally sighted stranded off Cudjoe Key, in the Lower Florida Keys, late on Thursday died after becoming beached on flats.
"We're kind of racing the sun right now. If some of these animals are stranded in very shallow water, then the sun could be taking a toll on their skin and actually burning them," Karrie Carnes, a spokesperson for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), told Reuters.
"This is a critical time ... it is bright and hot," said Carnes, speaking by phone from the site of the rescue.
The mass beaching of pilot whales, a smaller whale species that has a bulbous forehead and can grow to between 12 to 18 feet in length, are quite common across the world, from New Zealand to Senegal.
The last such event in the Florida Keys, a "hot spot" for the beaching of marine mammals, occurred in 2003, when 28 pilot whales were beached.
Carnes said the goal of the rescue, which also involved the Coast Guard and the Navy, was to get as many of the animals as possible into the protective sea pen, which is formed by boom and skirting and shields the whales and their helpers against sharks and the elements while they can be checked by vets.
"It's very important that these animals are kept wet and comfortable, they have towels and wet sheets that are over them," she added.
The operation was complicated by the fact the stranded whales were scattered over a seven-mile radius of very shallow water off Cudjoe Key subject to shifting tides. This meant that only small boats could be used.
Carnes, who is based at NOAA's Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, said a variety of factors could cause such mass whale beaching: sickness, injuries, harmful algae blooms or disorientation resulting from man-made elements such as sonars.
In some past mass incidents around the world, experts have speculated that the animals may have become disoriented by offshore seismic and sonar exploration by international oil
companies, or even by the sonar systems of submarines patrolling or involved in military exercises.
(Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Greg McCune)