ST. LUCIE COUNTY — Hundreds of Treasure Coast residents converged on Avalon Beach State Park Saturday in what became an all-day struggle to rescue a pod of short-fin pilot whales that stranded themselves in the surf.
Twenty-two of the sleek, black marine mammals, ranging in size from 5-foot juveniles to 18-foot adults weighing around one ton, languished in the sun. Volunteers under the direction of biologists and veterinarians wrestled the whales upright to help them breath, covered their skins with moist towels and poured water over them.
The animals came ashore sometime before 9 a.m. One of the first on scene was Blair Mase, stranding coordinator for the Southeast Region with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. By coincidence, Mase, who recently moved to Vero Beach, was surfing in the area when she noticed people running toward the whales.
Mase said in such instances, it is useless to simply push pilot whales back into the ocean.
"This species has a tight social structure," Mase said. "Typically, they stay together as a group. So if one animal is sick, they all come ashore. If you push them into the water, they'll just keep coming back and stranding themselves again."
Scientists are not certain why pilot whales deliberately swim up onto beaches, although Mase said it is the species that most often does in Florida.
It may be a hard-wired instinct to follow their leader, said Steve McCulloch, manager of the Marine Mammal Stranding Network for Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University. Pilot whales are highly social animals and appear to take direction from one alpha individual. If that whale gets sick and beaches itself, the rest seem to follow without realizing that it's going to kill them, he added.
There were five calves in the stranded pod and McCulloch said they have the best chances of being saved. They were taken to Harbor Branch Saturday afternoon to be medically evaluated and rehydrated.
"Sadly, without the facilities and resources that are critically needed, the rest probably cannot be saved," he said. "The other whales will be humanely euthanized."
By noon, scientists were busy triaging the whales to determine which could be saved. Harbor Branch veterinarian Kattis Stengard took blood samples from the dorsal fins of each whale, which was then measured and tagged. Scientists intend to perform necropsies in an effort to learn more about the deep-water creatures.
McCulloch said mass strandings are rare and attract a lot of public attention.
"But for scientists, they are a treasure trove of information," he added.
Two large adult whales had died by early afternoon.
Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also were part of the team effort.
Volunteers from Pelican Island Audubon Society, Harbor Branch, surfers and passers-by worked in the blazing midday sun, kneeling in the sand to tend the whales.
More volunteers from the North Treasure Coast Chapter of the American Red Cross passed drinks and snacks. They also raised tents on the beach to shade both beasts and people — some of whom performed as human buttresses, bracing the bigger whales with their backs to keep them from rolling over and suffocating because their weight was not buoyed by water.
The sad undercurrent running through Saturday's crowd was the knowledge that most of the animals were dying.
"We have had volunteers out here since this morning, pouring their hearts and souls out," Mase said. "These people are trying to save these whales and, for those that cannot be saved, trying to make their last hours more comfortable."
Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisth, a Harbor Branch volunteer, was working with others at a shaded inflatable pool, tending the juveniles that veterinarians hoped to rehabilitate.
"I think that people want to help animals," she said. "Especially whales and dolphins, because they are our counterparts in the seas. They're mammals, they're intelligent, they're social. They're a lot like us."
Mase said she's been working whale strandings for 20 years and sees this type of humane outpouring all the time.
"It pulls at their heartstrings," she said. "Saving whales is a human thing."