SeaWorld Orlando jumped into action on Friday, May 6 when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) requested assistance caring for pilot whales that had beached themselves in a 12-mile radius near Cudjoe Key, Fla. 20 miles north of Key West.
Despite heroic efforts by hundreds of volunteers, 15 of the 22 whales died. The surviving whales were cared for in a temporary sea pen with round-the-clock, hands-on care provided by SeaWorld, and volunteers and staff from NOAA, Marine Mammal Conservancy, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, the Marine Animal Rescue Society and other stranding network partners. Additional support was provided by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the U.S. Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary and the U.S. Navy.
Experts and volunteers were thrilled on Saturday, May 7, when vets determined two of the male pilot whales were healthy enough to be returned to the waters off Key West. The whales were outfitted with satellite transmitters and then loaded onto a specially outfitted barge. They were taken twelve miles off shore before being released in 500-foot-deep water. The successful release boosted workers spirits and renewed everyone’s commitment to caring for the remaining animals.
SeaWorld’s chief veterinarian, Dr. Chris Dold, advised that the five remaining whales needed more rehabilitation if they were to have a chance at survival. Plans were made to transport the four females and one male to the Marine Mammal Conservancy in Key Largo. They were kept comfortable, wet and cool during the 90-minute drive.
According to Dr. Dold, “Three of the whales are in guarded condition and two are in critical. It’s too early to tell their long-term prognosis, but we’re cautiously optimistic. The whales are in good hands.”
Randy Runnells, SeaWorld Orlando’s assistant curator of animal care, was in charge of the transport. He said, “The most rewarding thing is watching a healthy animal swim away. Saving animals is what we do and knowing we gave them a second chance at life is an indescribable feeling.”
SeaWorld’s animal rescue team is on call 24/7 to care for ill, orphaned or injured marine animals including birds, sea turtles, manatees, dolphins and whales. The parks have rescued more than 18,000 animals since the program began more than 45 years ago.
If you find an injured, orphaned or ill animal – be safe and keep your distance. In Florida, contact Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 24/7, at 1-888-404-FWCC (1-888-404-3922). In other states contact your local wildlife agency. Be prepared to detail the animal’s exact location and its condition.