Whales are mysterious creatures, as the scene that unfolded in the Everglades last week has taught us. Over 50 pilot whales stranded themselves in a remote part of Everglades National Park, and scientists are still unsure what caused this to happen. Strandings are not uncommon, because whales are very social animals, and they are known to gather around a sick member of their pod.
This pod of short-finned pilot whales traveled into just three feet of water – a far cry from the deep Gulf of Mexico where they are common – and responding to this emergency fell to a few knowledgeable groups. A group of 31 first-responders spent days helping the whales to navigate unfamiliar shallows for a 20-mile return journey to more suitable waters. In the end, the pod was last seen swimming back out to sea, but 22 of their members died in the Everglades.
This is a timely reminder of how important a marine mammal stranding network is to response and rehabilitation of dolphins and whales, as well as to gather data to understand the cause of strandings and prevent them in the future. Stranding networks train local organizations in all coastal U.S. states to respond to marine mammals (and sea turtles, too) that strand themselves as a way to ensure a quick response. This activity is traditionally coordinated by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), but the grant funding necessary for the program has seen dramatic cuts in recent years. In fact, the 2014 government budget request has no money slated for this important activity.
Marine mammal stranding networks need funding now more than ever. Since the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in 2010, unusually high numbers of dolphins have stranded in places like Mississippi, Alabama, and the Florida panhandle, and we have dwindling resources to provide an adequate response. The latest information from the government’s investigation into oil spill impacts suggests thousands of marine mammals were exposed to oil form the BP disaster. Time and science may tell if this latest stranding in the Everglades is directly or indirectly due to the oil and dispersants that covered a large part of the pilot whales’ home waters.
Until then, we must ensure that restoration dollars are used to expand and enhance the response efforts of marine mammal stranding network partners in the Gulf. Ocean Conservancy is working to do just that. We encourage the Natural Resource Trustee agencies to use a portion of the $1 billion BP committed as a down payment toward oil spill restoration and fund a restoration project that would enhance the capabilities of wildlife rescue centers across the Gulf. These much-needed resources would enable marine mammal responders to act quicker and more efficiently to recover and rehabilitate stranded animals. You can help us turn this restoration project into a reality; stay tuned for future opportunities to get involved in our Gulf restoration efforts.