REDINGTON BEACH — In late July, a community of concerned residents and officials banded together to rescue five stranded short-finned pilot whales.
Now, scientists have an idea how the released animals may be faring in the wild.
Satellite tracking tags put on the three of the Redington Beach whales showed them exhibiting normal behavior for several weeks until the devices stopped transmitting. Two of those whales even appeared to be heading toward a well-known pilot whale haunt off the coast of North Carolina near Cape Hatteras.
The other two whales showed more concerning behavior — unexpected dive patterns — before scientists lost contact with them.
However, none of the tags were active long enough to give researchers a definitive prognosis on any of the whales.
“The tags can tell us some things, but they can’t tell us everything,” said Randy Wells, who helped the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration track the whales. Wells is the vice president of marine mammal conservation and the director of the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program for the Chicago Zoological Society.
Generally, if trackers can monitor a tagged whale behaving normally for six weeks after its release, they can be relatively certain the animal will survive.
But even the six week benchmark is imperfect, Wells stressed. Tags are put under a great deal of pressure by the deep-diving aquatic mammals, and they can fail for any number of reasons: flooding, battery breakage or an antennae snapping.
Mass whale strandings themselves are unusual. Occasions where scientists can release, tag and monitor the stranded animals are even less common. That means when researchers rescue and release stranded whales, they’re dealing with a world of unknowns, Wells said.
What caused the whales to beach themselves? How will the stranding affect the group’s behavior once it is back in open waters? Will tracking tags last long enough to give scientists confidence the whales are healthy?
These are the questions that hung in the air as scientists prepared to monitor the five whales.
After the stranding, the whales — all male, scientists later confirmed — were separated into two groups. Three of the whales, “C, D and E,” were boated back out to the open ocean on the day of the rescue. The other two, “A and B”, who were younger, were driven to a new Clearwater Marine Aquarium medical facility in Tarpon Springs.
There were reasons to be optimistic about the whales’ release. Wells said that he wasn’t aware of any major medical issues with any of the animals — even the two held and assessed at the Tarpon Springs facility.
Individuals in the two groups stuck together once they reached open water, with some of the whales even diving in synchronized patterns, as though choreographed.
“These societies are truly impressive,” Wells said.
C, D and E headed west, then northwest toward the coast of Louisiana before tracking data showed a sudden change in D’s behavior. His dives were short enough to concern trackers, Wells said. Shortly thereafter, researchers lost contact with D. The animal’s tag lasted just nine days.
The animal’s mates, C and E, continued apace. The whales turned north toward the Florida-Alabama line, then made a full loop south and east around the southern coast of Florida. The whales then swam north along Florida’s Atlantic coast.
Researchers lost track of C just over a month after his release, as he headed north near the Georgia-South Carolina border. E’s tag lasted four more days before scientists lost contact with him off the coast of North Carolina.
A and B, meanwhile, took a more meandering track. The pair initially swam northwest toward the northern Gulf of Mexico. But instead of making a southeast turn, A and B headed southwest. Around the middle of the Gulf, the pair made an about-face, turning back northeast.
Twenty-two days into his journey, B showed unusual movement patterns, Wells said. Then the whale’s tag transmissions stopped. Five days after that, researchers lost touch with A near the southeast coast of Louisiana.
The tracking tags may not provide a clean epilogue for devotees of the stranded whales. But they did give scientists insight into the behavior of the enigmatic species. In the past, scientists were left to guess the fate of rescued whales, Wells said. With every data point, researchers are closer to figuring out how to give animals the best chance of surviving a stranding.
Scientists photographed all five whales, identifying them by the shape, nicks and notches on their dorsal fins, Wells said. If another scientist encounters any of the individuals in the future — the animals can live 35 to 60 years — the researchers will know for sure that at least one Redington Beach pilot whale is alive and well.
But for now, all scientists have are clues.