Three days after stranding themselves at Redington Beach, two pilot whales were released back into the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday after a 20-mile boat ride to the southwest.
The decision was made to release the two young whales because three older whales that were stranded with them Monday morning seem to be doing well since they were hauled back into the gulf, said Clearwater Marine Aquarium CEO David Yates.
Data from satellite tags attached to the older whales shows the three of them had swum nearly 70 miles southwest as of Wednesday afternoon. The tags will continue sending data for about six weeks, until the batteries die.
The other two whales, dubbed simple A and B, were loaded onto boats Thursday morning at Anclote River Park in Holiday. At the other end, the release went smoothly.
"The key is to stay out of the way," Yates said, "and not get hit by the flukes."
There were risks involved in the process — gravity weighs heavily on whales out of water and they might have thrashed against the boat — but the two remained as calm as the seas and made it all the way to the drop-off target, officials said.
Monday's strandings sparked a rescue effort by marine authorities and bystanders. After about 10 hours, the first three whales were hoisted onto boats for release and the two younger whales were taken to a Clearwater Marine Aquarium center in Tarpon Springs for treatment. Soon they were dubbed fit for release.
Marine authorities were surprised that the rescue effort went so well.
Yates credited a widespread effort that involved bystanders on the beach as well as agencies such as the Coast Guard and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
"Collaboration really works," Yates said. "The community really got involved this. One group can't do this the right way by themselves."
The two whales were kept behind because one of them didn't seem to be doing well at first, said Erin Fougeres, a stranding program administrator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"They seemed to want to be together," Fougeres said.
"Our team called them the buddies," added Yates. "They were just buddies through the whole process."
Whether the two young whales rejoin the other three remains a secondary goal, Yates said. They're not dependent calves and can do well traveling on their own.
The primary goal was returning them to their natural habitat.
Researchers don't know a lot about pilot whale behavior, he said, but they're social animals known to travel in groups of 10 to 30 — and even up to 100.
Twenty-four mass strandings of pilot whales have been recorded in the southeastern U.S. since 1991, Fougeres said.
This is the first time she has heard about the successful release of so many stranded pilot whales.
Strandings can be blamed on factors such as sickness, biotoxins in the water, inadvertently running into shallow water, and losing a leader, Yates said.
It's still unclear why the whales stranded at Redington Beach. There were no signs of medical issues, Yates said.
Staff writer Aaron Holmes contributed to this report. Contact Dennis Joyce at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @DMPJoyce