It began in December 2013, when 51 pilot whales were found stranded in Everglades National Park. Seven were found dead and four were euthanized. Eleven of the pod swam 70 miles and died leaving 29 unaccounted for. About a month later, 8 pilot whales were reported dead near Lover’s Key and two days later 25 whales were found dead south of Naples near Marco Island. Scientists are concerned as the number of strandings is higher than what they normally see.
There have been several theories postulated for why the whales have been beaching themselves at such an unusual rate. Pilot whales are among the most common stranders. Because of their strong social bonds they form close knit social groups and follow one or two leaders or navigators. It is possible that they are following a sick leader who is coming into shallow waters to make breathing easier. Or the pod could be following a member of high importance that got stranded.
Another theory suggested that weather had something to do with it. Florida experienced a series of cold snaps in January. “Any kind of front or a hurricane disorients the animals, and they come in,” said Erin Fougeres, a marine mammal biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries. The 25 dead whales off Marco Island were found during a cold snap and high seas that may have pushed the whales ashore. While some studies have found a connection between sonar pings and pilot whale strandings, there was no sonar being used in the area.
Another culprit may be the morbillivirus which pilot whales have been known to carry. It can cause skin lesions, pneumonia, brain and other infections. The virus has killed hundreds of dolphins along the Atlantic coast in 2013.
Necropsies are being conducted on the dead whales but complete results will not be available for months. But what is known from visual inspection is that many of the whales appear to be emaciated and malnourished. What is not yet known is if this is due to disease or getting too close to shore where they may have become dehydrated and disoriented and unable to leave the shallow water.
Florida has more strandings of whales than any other state followed by California.