Twenty-four whales believed to be part of a pod found stranded in the Everglades earlier this week could not been located by air Friday, a potentially encouraging sign they have moved farther offshore, wildlife officials said.
A Coast Guard air search also found a group of seven whales swimming in 12 to 14 feet of water south of where they were located Thursday, said Blair Mase, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stranding coordinator.
Two other whales were seen floating in shallow water near the shore of Plover Key. Mase said a biologist was en route by helicopter to assess their condition.
A fishing guide discovered several beached whales and dozens of others in the waters off a remote section of the Everglades Tuesday. Six were found dead the next day, and four others were euthanized. Another dead whale was confirmed Thursday. Necropsies of the dead whales did not reveal any initial significant findings, Mase said Friday. Scientists now await the pathology results to see whether there is any evidence of disease.
"I think some of the whales were considered to be malnourished," Mase said.
She called Friday's findings hopeful, though cautioned against drawing any conclusions yet.
"The larger outcome for the whales is still considered to be unknown at this time," she said.
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."