National wildlife officials say 20 whales have been spotted swimming towards the shore in the Everglades, a concern to scientists who had hoped they would swim to deeper waters.
"They had a straight shot to their normal home range, and they didn't take it," NOAA spokeswoman Blair Mase said Friday. "There may be something going on that we don't understand."
The whales actually moved one mile inshore from Thursday, when it seemed as if they were swimming away. They were moving very slowly towards to southeast.
"I am definitely concerned about their behavior," Mase said. "They may have gotten to the point where they are exhausted."
Earlier Friday, seven whales were spotted in 12 to 14 feet of water. They were not swimming cohesively. It appears they joined 13 others to make this pod.
Mase said scientists are hesitant to move forward with herding techniques to push them into deeper water because it may not be in the best interest of the whales. At some point, Mase said, scientists need to let nature take its course.
On Saturday, a team will be sent out to respond to the whales, if necessary.
From the start, NOAA and National Park Service officials have said the short-finned pilot whales faced significant hurdles. They were found in shallow water some 20 miles from the deep, colder waters to which they're accustomed. And Mase said they faced a series of sandbanks, tributaries and patches of shallow water that are "almost like a maze."
When National Park Service volunteers Donna and John Buckley left the pod of 41 remaining whales Wednesday evening, their optimism was starting to wane.
The couple — from Michigan but now living in an Everglades boathouse — had spent two days trying to coax the animals into deeper waters. On Tuesday, they physically pulled several whales from the sand of the remote Highlands Beach. They spent Wednesday with other wildlife workers in boats, forming a semi-circle around the pod and banging their vessels with anchor chains in an attempt to move the animals further offshore.
But the whales seemed fatigued and unmotivated. They moved just half a mile out to sea during the volunteers' rescue effort.
"I thought a number of them might not make it," Donna Buckley, 72, said.
On Thursday, Donna Buckley and her husband went back across the sage green waters to where they'd worked with the whales. This time, though, they were gone.
Sometime overnight the whales had begun moving toward their natural, deep-water habitat, some 20 miles from where they were found, a possibility that had seemed highly unlikely just a day before.
A Coast Guard helicopter found two pods of whales early Thursday in a deeper area of water — about 12 feet. By late afternoon, Mase said three pods had been located nine miles north of their original location and were moving offshore.
"That was a surprise," Donna Buckley, a former national canoe racing champion said. "Quite the surprise."
Wildlife workers had planned Thursday to try using noises such as banging on pipes and revving boat engines to herd the whales out to the open ocean. But that turned out to be unnecessary, and the workers simply used positioning of the boats to prevent any of the whales from turning away from the open sea, Mase said.
Donna and John Buckley were the first to respond after a fishing guide spotted the beached whales Tuesday afternoon. A call came across the parks radio, and the Buckleys were the closest volunteers to the remote western edge of the Everglades park where the whales were found.
When they got to the beach, John Buckley waded through the shallow waters in a canoe while his wife stayed aboard the boat, counting the whales drifting before her. In their 28 years as volunteers in the Everglades, they had seen only one whale stranded before.
John Buckley climbed ashore and ran to one of about nine whales stuck on the sand. He grabbed its tail and began to pull.
"Once the whale could feel the water, it reacted," John Buckley, 72, said. "It wanted to help."
The whale flapped at him, knocking him into the water. He got back up and continued pushing the whale until it was entirely back in the water. Three park rangers then arrived and started working with him to pull the other whales off the beach.
A nearby calf and an adult whale were motionless.
"There was no helping them," John Buckley said.
But he and the rangers were able to help another calf and a whale that appeared to be its mother get back into the water.
The whales they were able to help save seemed ill, Donna Buckley said.
"They seemed very disoriented, confused," she said. "They didn't know which end was up."
The next day seemed to only confirm their suspicions that the whales were sick. The couple said the animals drifted languidly in the water, as if, John Buckley imagined, paralyzed by grief. He recalled how the whales seemed to look at him, quietly acknowledging his presence.
"They could have just rammed me and knocked me over, but they didn't do it," he said. "I could tell there was some thinking going on there. I just didn't understand."