Denise Boyd on pilot whales
Whales beached at Gordon Pass.
RAW VIDEO: Pilot whales beached at Gordon Pass
Photo by LAURA LAYDEN // Buy this photo
UPDATE: The pilot whales that were beached at Gordon Pass are alive and back out in the open water.
Twelve pilot whales were spotted two miles off Fort Myers this morning, said NOAA spokeswoman Kim Amendola.
The other 13 pilot whales have not been spotted. The NOAA is using a plane to track their movements.
NAPLES -- It’s a whale of a tale.
Twenty-four pilot whales gathered in Gordon Pass early Sunday, surprising residents, tourists, and even longtime boat captains in Naples, who have never seen them so close to shore, if ever.
“Our tourists got some great pictures, they got some great stories to tell,” said Roger Jacobsen, harbor master for the city of Naples.
While a team of rescuers, including Jacobsen, expeditiously steered the animals back out to the Gulf of Mexico with their boats, the tale might not be over.
The short-finned whales, who are usually only found in deep waters, were still on watch late Sunday night by law enforcement with Florida Fish and Wildlife, as the distressed animals still lingered close to the pass after dark.
The rescue mission could continue at daylight Monday, if the whales haven’t moved farther offshore, and need more coaxing to do so.
“They are very disoriented,” said Denise Boyd, a researcher for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, pointing out the whales had strayed 70 to 80 miles from where they should have been seen.
The first sightings came around 10 a.m. Sunday. That’s about the time Capt. Gene Luciano saw the whales while cruising around on his fishing boat with his wife.
“I’ve been here 43 years and I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said with amazement. “Whales in Gordon Pass.”
He offered rides to passers-by at the Naples City Dock who wanted to get an up-close look of the whales.
He feared the worst when he saw a few of the whales beach themselves on sandbars, but they were all rescued and sent out to the Gulf with the rest of their group. A total of four got caught in the sand near Keewaydin Island, one of them a calf, Boyd said.
The rescue team — with a sea of boats — included two private tow companies, law enforcement with Fish and Wildlife, the city of Naples and Collier County Sheriff’s Office, as well as marine experts with Rookery Bay and the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota.
“A little engine noise is enough to disturb them. They’ll move away from it,” Boyd said.
For several hours, the whales swam in different directions, until finally they were reunited into one pod.
“We just kind of grouped them together, they all hooked up and they just started swimming out into the Gulf,” Jacobsen said.
The whales moved into the Gulf around 3 p.m., to applause from onlookers, including local boaters and tourists on rental boats.
“Even for a guy like me it’s very heartwarming to see them come off the sand and start swimming freely,” Jacobsen said.
Though the scene attracted other boaters, they didn’t interfere with the rescue, he said.
Many of the whales didn’t look healthy, said Kim Amendola, a communications specialist with NOAA Fisheries
“They are very thin,” she said. “They haven’t eaten in a while.”
It’s unknown whether the whales might be from the same group that was found stranded in Everglades National Park last month.
“We’re trying to find out if that’s the case,” Amendola said.
Of the 51 whales that were stranded at the park, 29 survived, Boyd said.
The whales discovered Sunday were marked with a red streak on their fin so they can be more easily tracked. They have been photographed and their fins will be compared to those of the ones found in South Florida.
It’s not yet known why the whales ended up in Gordon Pass. Pilot whales are the most common species to strand themselves in masses in the southeast U.S. When one is sick or ill, others will usually stay close by, even if it means swimming to shore.
The last mass stranding of pilot whales in this part of Florida was in 1995. There was one in the Florida Keys in 2011.
The tale Sunday could have ended another way without a little help from Mother Nature, Jacobsen said.
“We had a great incoming tide,” he said. “It could have been quite different if it was an outgoing tide.”