National Park Service
Boats herding stranded pilot whales back to open ocean off the Florida Everglades.
Originally designed to live on land, marine mammals are a diverse, charismatic group of animals that include more than 120 species. The animals share key characteristics of land mammals. They have hair, breathe air, give birth to live young, which feed off mother's milk when young. They have warm bodies and usually thick blubber to keep their body temperatures high. The bottlenose dolphin is probably the most widely recognized marine mammal, easily spotted just offshore from beaches around the world. Small groups of 20 or less can live in close proximity to shorelines, but groups living more offshore can reach several hundred. Bottlenose dolphin calves stay with their mothers for up to six years, learning how to hunt and become good dolphin citizens. Full-grown dolphins reach eight to 12 feet in length and can weigh up to 1,430 pounds. The bottlenose dolphin is protected in U.S. waters.
What makes them "marine" depends on the animal. They either live mostly in the sea or, like polar bears, depend on the ocean for food. The largest in the group are whales -- including humpback whales. These massive animals reach up to 50 feet in length and weigh up to 79,000 pounds. To maintain their weight, the animals feed on tons of krill and fish. They neared extinction due to whaling, but have recovered somewhat since a 1966 moratorium on whaling was introduced.
While polar bears live mostly on land or ice, they are excellent swimmers and have been known to swim up to 45 miles a day. The massive animals, weighing up to 1,500 pounds, hunt mostly seals. In recent years, biologists have observed that the bears are swimming now more than ever as melting stretches the distances between Arctic ice flows. Because they depend on sea ice to hunt seals, the polar bear is considered threatened as global warming melts and thins ice in this region.
This member of the weasel family is also the smallest marine mammal, with females weighing about 60 pounds and males weighing up to 90 pounds. They may be small, but they're also clever. They're the only marine mammals known to use tools. They use stones to break open clams and store food they gather in the folds of their armpits! Another feature that sets them apart is their lack of blubber. These marine mammals depend mostly on their fur to stay warm. That feature makes them particularly vulnerable to oil spills, which can compromise their fur's insulating effect.
Immediately recognizable by its long tusks and whiskers, the sea walrus is a hefty, flippered member of the Odobenidae family and is, in fact, the last living member of this group. Since both the males and females have big tusks and not much for teeth, the animals feed by sucking up shellfish from the ocean floor. So, just what are those tusks for? The longer they are (they grow to be up to four feet long in males), the higher an animal is ranked in the group. Males attack each other with their tusks to establish dominance. The ivory appendages are also handy for poking holes in the winter ice and for helping the animals pull themselves out of the water.
Manatees, also known as sea cows, are gentle herbivores that live in marshy areas in tropical and subtropical waters. The average adult manatee can weigh up 1,200 pounds and is around 10 feet long. Because of their slow metabolism, these animals can only survive in warm waters. Due to the unusually long, cold winter this year in part of the southeastern United States, populations of manatees throughout Florida were devastated. During the day, manatees usually like to stay close to the surface. At night, manatees will often sleep about three to 10 feet below sea level. This is why these gentle animals are so often accidentally injured, maimed or killed by passing boats.
Found up and down the North American coastlines, these marine mammals spend half of their lives swimming. Although they can reach up to six feet in length and weigh around 180 pounds, when on land and in plain sight harbor seals may not be easy to spot. Their spotted brown or tan fur allows harbor seals to blend in with sand and rocks. Unlike their very vocal relatives -- sea lions and elephant seals -- harbor seals are quiet creatures that make little noise. They like to hang out on beaches, sand bars and rocks during low tide to bask in the sun and sleep, but they never go far from the water. At the slightest sign of danger, they will quickly slip back under the waves. These expert swimmers have been known to plunge to depths of more than 1,600 feet and stay underwater up to 28 minutes.
Herding whales to safety is no easy task, but marine mammal experts have developed clever techniques that can save stranded whales, including many of those that wound up near Everglades National Park in Florida earlier this week.
Fishermen spotted 51 stranded pilot whales there on Tuesday. Among those whales, eleven died. Necropsy results are expected in a matter of weeks or perhaps months. Five whales remain missing, but the other 35 were herded offshore and are now in 12 feet of water.
"We are cautiously optimistic," NOAA spokeswoman Blair Mase told Discovery News and other media during a press conference Thursday afternoon.
She explained that pilot whales are normally in 900-1000 feet of water, "so they still have a while to go." As of Thursday evening, the whales were near Clover Key, 15 miles offshore, and appeared to be headed in the right direction away from land.
A coordinated effort involving the Coast Guard, NOAA Fisheries, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Marine Mammal Conservancy and Marine Animal Rescue Society deployed boats into the water. Via strategic maneuvers, the boats herded the whales away from shore and are now continuing to "escort" them back to safety.
CT Harry, assistant stranding coordinator at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, explained that "two or three vessels usually coordinate their movements in order to herd marine mammals, such as pilot whales. Together, the boats form a horseshoe shape in the water (surrounding the whales) and move in unison or in a zigzag motion."
He said rescue teams sometimes also release a water-activated "ping" device to encourage stranded marine mammals to move away from shore. That was considered for use in Florida, but ultimately was not needed.
"It doesn't harm cetaceans, but they don't like the sounds that it makes," he said.
Pilot whales that beached and died at the Florida Everglades.National Park Service
For pilot whales that beach themselves, or otherwise wind up out of water, their own massive body weight -- up to around 6,600 pounds for adults -- could put pressure on their organs when unsupported by sufficient water. Janelle Schuh, stranding coordinator for Mystic Aquarium said that rescuers might therefore attempt to dig pressure-relieving trenches close to the whale's body, if it's on sand.
"It is also important to protect their skin from drying out, so we put wet cloths on their backs," she said.
As a last resort, teams will attempt to carry stranded marine mammals back to the water by placing them on stretchers. This is potentially very dangerous, though, both to the animal victims and to the rescuers. Schuh explained that the animals could die on the spot due to profound stress, or could hurt the people.
Human presence just in and of itself, especially when marine mammals are already out of their comfort zones, can skyrocket their stress levels.
"If you encounter a stranded marine mammal, please contact your local authorities immediately and only observe the animal or animals from a lengthy distance," Schuh advised.
NOAA Fisheries has organized the Marine Mammal Stranding Network. It lists the contact information for multiple different rescue organizations around the nation, with a few international organizations included as well. Most operate hotlines for reporting strandings.
It's likely that early reporting and a fast response from Mase and her team helped to save the 35 pilot whales now heading away from the Florida Everglades.