MIAMI -- In a scene that has become all too familiar on the world's beaches and shoals, a pod of whales descended this week into a struggle between life and death in the Gulf of Mexico. Some of the whales beached themselves and died, while others appeared destined for the same fate despite rescuers' efforts.
The drama began playing out Tuesday in a remote coastal area 30 miles northwest of Flamingo, on the southern tip of Florida's mainland, when officials from Everglades National Park reported a "mass stranding" of short-finned pilot whales. By dusk Wednesday, at least 10 of the whales were dead, and 41 others swam nearby, apparently unwilling to leave their confederates but in mortal danger of being beached, too.
Rescuers who were trying to shepherd the surviving whales out to open sea were stymied by sharks that had feasted on the carcasses and posed a danger to everyone, human and beast alike.
"This is a challenging situation, to say the least," Blair Mase, the Southeast region marine stranding coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told reporters Thursday morning in a conference call.
Ms. Mase said that although the death count had risen to 11, most of the surviving whales appeared to have moved offshore during the night Wednesday. The crew of a Coast Guard helicopter early Thursday spotted 15 to 20 swimming "significantly north" of the Highland Beach area where the strandings occurred. Later in the day, 35 whales were counted swimming offshore, with their position pinpointed at six miles out to sea.
The news was welcome, Ms. Mase said, although it was possible that the whales might return and die. In any case, the whales were nowhere near their so-called home range, roughly 15 miles offshore, where the water is about 1,000 feet deep, she said.
"This situation could go either way," Ms. Mase said. "There's a chance they could come inshore again."
If they do, it will prompt a revival of the frantic rescue effort that was undertaken this week, with diminishing chances of success.
The beachings occurred in an area with very shallow water and large stretches of shoals, especially at low tide, a terrain that makes it all the more difficult to herd large sea mammals -- and reluctant ones -- out to sea.
And the more time they spend in such surroundings, far from food sources and deeply stressed, the worse their chances of survival become.
Six of the 51 whales initially recorded as members of the pod were unaccounted for Thursday, and there was a chance that they had died at sea of whatever afflicted their podmates.
Necropsies were performed Thursday on the dead whales -- four of which were euthanized by veterinarians -- to determine why they might have beached themselves.
But the results may not be known for weeks.