The sight of scores of stranded dolphins in Florida’s Everglades is causing alarm throughout the state. As the Associated Press reports, rescue teams have been placed on standby after nearly 100 false killer whales stranded themselves, causing mass deaths and necessitating the euthanization of some of the suffering animals.
So far, said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on its Facebook page, 95 have been stranded and at least 82 are dead. The animals were found in shallow waters and apparently became trapped in the roots of mangrove trees and the silty water at Hog Key, a peninsula area south of Key Largo, Tim Elfrink at Miami New Times reports. Because the stranding site is so remote, the agency says, it’s been difficult for biologists to get to the scene and help the animals. However, a group of agencies from around the country is working with NOAA to try to assist the false killer whales and the agency will conduct necropsies (non-human autopsies) to try to figure out what happened.
False killer whales are large dolphins that bear a physical resemblance to their namesake, orca whales, and also share their habit of killing other marine mammals, including other dolphins. Despite their vicious hunting habits, false killer whales are sociable; they form tight-knit social groups that stay together for life.
Mass strandings can seem like alarming anomalies, but false killer whales are actually known to occasionally strand in large groups. It makes sense, given that they are so sociable. The pods can find their way ashore because of human activity like underwater noise, changes in water temperature, tempting prey near the coast, disease or even mass confusion when the animals get disoriented by geographic features while swimming.
NOAA is well-equipped to monitor stranded mammals: The agency has an entire network of spotters and scientists devoted to monitoring strandings and working with local volunteers to help animals who have lost their way. But for now, NOAA scientists don’t have answers as to why the animals got trapped. All they do know is that, as Elfrink reports, it’s the worst Florida stranding event of its kind.
Mass strandings are alarming mysteries, and when they occur they make news all over the world. Often, it’s hard for scientists to determine just what is causing massive numbers of animals to get stuck in shallow waters. There’s a silver lining for some of the false killer whales in question: As Elfrink writes, rescuers managed to get some of them to turn back from shallow seas into deeper waters, saving a few of the animals. But as long as the group keeps wending its way toward the tangled coast of the Everglades, it faces the risk of stranding and death despite rescuers’ best efforts.