A total of 35 pilot whales have been swimming into deeper waters Thursday away from the shallow spot in Everglades National Park where dozens of whales had been stranded, officials said.
The whales were swimming northwest in three pods in about 18 feet of water and about 6 miles west of Clover Key, NOAA spokeswoman Blair Mase said Thursday.
Mase said the news was encouraging because it means the whales may be leaving the site of the stranding.
"We were surprised that they were not in the area, and that they had moved so far north," she said.
A total of 51 whales were discovered stranded Tuesday by fishing guides near Highland Beach, which is the western boundary of Everglades National Park in Monroe County on the Gulf coast.
A total of 11 have died, 35 are alive and at least five were missing. All age classes were represented in the whales, Mase said.
"The good news is they are in deeper water, and they are getting closer to their normal home range," Mase said.
At 2:30 p.m., rescue workers headed back to shore because the whales were too far out, but the Coast Guard stayed with them to guide them. When they left, the whales were about six miles offshore.
Mase added their normal home range is in 900 to 1,000 feet of water, and they need to get into about 100 feet of water or more, or about 15 miles offshore at least.
"We're cautiously optimistic," Mase said.
Mase added that the situation could go either way, and that necropsies were performed on the dead animals and scientists will study to see what may have caused the stranding.
Mase added that if the animals are no longer in the area on Friday, and they continue to move into deeper waters, the rescue effort will be discontinued.
On Wednesday, park rangers responded and found six whales dead, and another four had to be euthanized, officials said. Rangers worked with NOAA Fisheries, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Marine Mammal Conservancy and Marine Animal Rescue Society to try to herd the rest of the 41 whales into deeper waters Wednesday.
But efforts to herd the close-knit animals out of the area, which is about an hour from the nearest boat ramp, had not been successful. One reason is the animals don't want to separate.
"Once their leader is gone, or they get beached, they don’t really know what to do so they’ll stay together," Friar said.
The U.S. Coast Guard and Miami-Dade Police Departments are assisting in the efforts Thursday, according to NOAA. A total of 15 boats and 31 people were heading out to the area.
Making things difficult for rescue workers was the presence of sharks, which were feeding on the dead carcasses of the whales and preventing the workers from getting into the water, Mase said.
The stranding is not uncommon in Florida. In 2012, more than 20 pilot whales beached themselves in Fort Pierce, and just five were rescued.
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