Responding to a request by NOAA Fisheries on Friday night, 6 May, SDRP staff drove to Cudjoe Key in the lower Florida Keys early on the morning of 7 May to tag two male short-finned pilot whales from a mass stranding of about 21 whales.
The animals were initially scattered through the area when the stranding began on 5 May.
The Marine Mammal Conservancy and others were able to move all of the whales to a more centralized location and set up a temporary enclosure for initial treatment and evaluation.
The two adult males were determined by the attending veterinarians and NOAA Fisheries to be in adequate health and condition for immediate release.
The remaining live whales were subsequently transported to a rehabilitation center for continuing care.
The males were tagged with single-point attachment satellite-linked transmitters produced by Wildlife Computers.
These tags provided data on location, dive depths, and dive durations. One of the males was tracked for 17 days, and the other for 66 days, until the tag’s AA battery was drained.
Both whales remained close together for the entire period both tags were transmitting, as they moved northward, and the dive patterns of the two whales were very similar to one another.
Given the whales’ previous behavior, researchers speculate that the abrupt loss of the signal from one whale resulted from failure of the transmitter or attachment on the whale’s dorsal fin rather than a gradual decline in the health of the whale.
As can be seen from the map, the remaining whale, Y-400, continued around the north and east side of the Bahamas and then southward to the northern shore of the Dominican Republic, often moving with prevailing currents. It continued to the northeast tip of Cuba, and then remained in the Windward Passage, separating Cuba from Haiti, for the last days signals were received.
The whale made occasional dives to 1,000-1,500 meters and occasionally stayed down for more than 40 min, among the deepest and longest documented dives for this species.
One of the concerns for mass strandings has been that retaining all of the members of the group in rehab until all are sufficiently healthy to be released at once may be detrimental to those individuals who were initially healthy.
The apparently successful release of these whales supports the idea of evaluating initial health and releasing individuals from the stranding site rather than retaining entire groups. The tagging and follow-up monitoring were supported by the NOAA John H. Prescott grants program.