Pilot whales head back to sea after beaching in Florida

Pilot whales stranded in Florida

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A National Park Services volunteer looks over a dead pilot whale as it lies on the beach in the Florida Everglades in this December 4, 2013 handout photo obtained December 5. The whales were part of a group of about 50 that were in danger of being stranded in the shallow water of the Everglades earlier this week. About 10 of the whales died. (REUTERS/Everglades & Dry Tortugas National Parks/Handout)

By Jane Sutton

MIAMI (Reuters) - Most of the pilot whales that were stranded in the Florida Everglades swam into deeper water on Thursday while rescuers tried to chase the rest out to sea by banging on pipes and revving their boat engines.

Wildlife workers had hoped the cacophony would encourage the whales to leave the shallow water where dozens of short-finned pilot whales were first sighted on Tuesday afternoon in a remote part of the Everglades National Park.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, said via Twitter that of the 51 whales originally stranded, 11 had died and five went missing overnight Wednesday.

NOAA said the 35 swimming away were about 9 miles from shore, in about 18 feet of water, with about 10 or 15 miles to go before they reach deeper waters.

Biologists were collecting samples from some of the carcasses in hopes of learning how they died. There were also sharks in the area, feeding on the carcasses of the dead whales, NOAA said.

Biologists said that beached pilot whales often re-beach and that survival rates in mass strandings were very low.

About three dozen would-be rescuers from NOAA, the National Park Service, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and police set out in boats for the rescue effort, while the Coast Guard tracked them from the air.

A Coast Guard cutter crew was also enforcing a safety zone to protect the whales and keep sightseers away.

"A lot of people may have good intentions of helping them and do more harm than good," Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Ryan Doss said.

Pilot whales live in tightly cohesive groups and typically will not leave ailing or dead members behind. They are a deep-water species that forages on squid, octopus and fish and cannot live long in shallow water.

(Editing by Andre Grenon and Grant McCool)

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