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Eleven pilot whales found dead in Keys; believed to be part of pod stranded last week

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Updated: 12/09/2013 11:37 am
SNIPE POINT, Fla. (Palm Beach Post) -- Hours after wildlife officials closed the books on last week’s mass stranding of 51 pilot whales in a remote stretch of the Everglades with hopes that the survivors had made it out to sea, a call from the Lower Keys fractured those hopes.

At 1 p.m., 11 more whales were found dead on the beach at Snipe Point, not far from Sugar Loaf Key.

The discovery — made by an area resident and confirmed by state wildlife officials — came more than a day after Coast Guard searchers lost contact with the pod.

The spot is about 60 miles southeast of the Everglades stranding – in the direction the pod was heading.

“We don’t know for sure, but we suspect they are from the same group,” said Blair Mase, the marine mammal stranding coordinator for NOAA Fisheries in the Southeast.

“This has occurred in the past when we’ve had mass stranding in the Everglades — the animals move to the Keys.”

If they are indeed from the same pod, that leaves 29 animals still unaccounted for, Mase said.

That pod of short-finned pilot whales was first spotted by a fishing guide Tuesday in waters so remote that authorities had to travel an hour and a half by boat to reach them.

Six were found dead the next day, and four others were euthanized. Another dead whale was confirmed Thursday.

For days, dozens of their mates splashed in dangerously shallow waters, seemingly uninterested in returning to their habitat of deeper and colder water about 30 miles offshore.

The species is one of the most common species involved in mass strandings. They travel in groups of 25 to 55, and when one or more is unwell or decides to beach themselves, the others often follow – and refuse to leave.

Human efforts to steer the pod back to sea failed. But a day later, the whales seemed to head out on their own.

On Saturday, the Coast Guard did two sweeps of the area off Florida’s southwest coast, by helicopter and by boat, but the crews found no signs of the whales, Mase said.

Meanwhile, scientists aren’t any closer to understanding what caused the Everglades beaching, Mase said.

Necropsies are being performed on the original stranded whales, and so far no outward sign of trauma has been found, Mase said.

That does not rule out numerous other causes, including illness.

Mase confirmed red tide has been reported in the seas off Southwest Florida, but “at this time it’s not suspected.”

“We’re hoping to get more information from these whales,” Mase said of the 11 discovered dead Sunday. “We don’t have any ideas why these whales stranded.”

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