Featured Image Credit: Jim Watt courtesy of www.wattstock.com
By: Kira Krall
A 725-pound short-finned pilot whale had beached herself in Dixie County, Florida on July 1st. The University of Florida marine mammal rescue team and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium were the first on the scene after the public reported her to the Marine Mammal Stranding Network. They transported the massive mammal to SeaWorld Orlando for rehabilitation.
She was able to swim and eat like a healthy whale within one day, a good sign that she would be an excellent candidate for a quick release. NOAA and other partners in the Southeastern Marine Mammal Stranding Network provided their expertise throughout the whale’s two-and-a-half month rehabilitation.
The partnerships didn’t stop at the rescue. Once SeaWorld decided the whale was ready to return to the ocean, they needed to find a big enough boat. The Coast Guard stepped in and ferried the whale 140 miles off the west coast of Florida to a known pilot whale hangout spot. Pilot whales are exceptionally social animals, so releasing the mammal close to other members of her species gave her a much greater chance at joining a pod.
Her release required lots of moving parts, quite literally. The boat was rocking in the waves as the crew hoisted the pilot whale out of her transport via a hammock. Once in the water, she gave a few powerful strokes of her tail before disappearing. The Coast Guard crew fondly named the pilot whale “Gale.” Gale was also joined by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers to ensure a smooth release. Watch the clip of her rehab and return to the sea below!
Gale earned a spot in the Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program. There’s a satellite transmitter attached to her dorsal fin that transmits information about where she goes, how deep and for how long she dives, and the water temperature. Marine biologists are already confident that short-finned pilot whales prefer deeper water, but tracking individual animals like Gale will give them (and us!) more detailed information until the tag falls off in a few months.