On May 5, 2011, a pod of 23 pilot whales stranded off the Florida Keys. Several animals did not survive the event, two were tagged and released and the remaining five were transported to the stranding facility of the Marine Mammal Conservancy (MMC) off Cudjoe Key. Since the transport, three of the five whales were euthanized. Two now remain at MMC: “300,” a female said to be in critical condition, and “301,” a calf who is reported to be doing well and swimming on her own. In the nearly two months since the strand, hundreds of volunteers have been in the water providing round-the-clock care to the ailing whales.
Although the calf “301” is doing well, Erin Fougeres, Marine Mammal Stranding Program Administrator with the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), commented via telephone interview that the federal agency is in the process of making the determination of “non-releasable” today. Fougeres stated, “Given that it is a dependent calf and hasn’t learned any necessary skills, it would be inhumane to release this animal back to the wild because it would be subject to predators.” The NFMS official also said that further rehabiliation and release “is really not an option for this animal because it doesn’t have a mother from which to learn all of those skills which are necessary to survive.”
While recent reports (http://www.keysnet.com/2011/06/29/353841/surviving-pilot-whale-likely-heading.html) indicate that the stranded pilot whale calf will be heading to SeaWorld, San Diego, officials at NOAA Fisheries Washington, D.C. office claim that the decision is not a done deal. According to Jennifer Skidmore, NMFS Fishery Biologist, the process for placement of non-releasable animals is “evolving.” “What we have found,” said Skidmore via telephone interview on June 30, “is that in the case of cetaceans, there is an interest in and among captive facilities in taking care of the animals longterm if they can’t be released to the wild. So, there are more facilities stepping up to the plate than there are animals available.”
Given the high demand for the non-releasable animal, the federal fisheries agency has recently developed a questionnaire process for the placement of non-releasable cetaceans. Pilot whale “301” will be the second animal subject to this process. Each questionnaire is customized to the needs of the specific non-releasable animal, but all include content in three key areas: social considerations, a viable transport plan and veterinary concerns.
Once the questionnaire is developed, it will be circulated through organizational members of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks (AMMPA), the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and a “couple of other facilities that are non-members,” said Skidmore. Organizations will be given a short timetable to produce their responses and then questionnaires will be graded by a federal panel. Following the decision, the recipient facility will have 30 days to transfer the pilot whale to its new home.
It should come as no surprise that public display facilities such as SeaWorld are anxious to receive the valuable pilot whale. At present, the only pilot whales reported in captivity in the United States are at SeaWorld in San Diego, CA. “Sully,” a young pilot whale rescued in 2009 off the coast of Curacao, was rehabilitated and then transferred via Fedex charter plane to the pools at SeaWorld in 2010. SeaWorld is reported to have paid over $100,000 to transport the stranded animal. He presently co-habitates with dolphins and is being trained to perform along with SeaWorld’s two older female pilot whales, “Bubbles” and “Shadow.” The older pilot whales have performed there for over 20 years. Presumably, “301” would be considered as a possible mate for Sully, which would also provide SeaWorld with a unique opportunity for captive breeding of this species down the road. In the meantime, following a quarantine and acclimation period, “301” would be expected to earn her keep and be trained to perform in the daily production of “Blue Horizons,” a 25-minute show which includes a cast of 30 human and 70 animal performers and is performed up to six times a day. In “Blue Horizons,” the pilot whales splash the audience, perform aerial flips and “hydro” lifts with their trainers in which the trainers are lifted about 15 feet out of the water by the whales.
While Skidmore and Fourgeres were quick to respond to process questions, inquiries about the high mortality rate among captive pilot whales were met with silence. As reported by the Facebook group Save Misty the Dolphin, numerous cases of non-releasable captive dolphins have ended in tragedy (http://savemistythedolphin.blogspot.com/2011/06/non-releasable-deadly-saga-of-stranded.html). Reports from a previous stranding operation in 2003 at the Marine Mammal Conservancy cite an average lifespan for pilot whales in captivity of only 21 months. In the case of the 2003 stranding, NMFS made a determination to release five whales, including a calf “7.” (http://www.captseaweed.com/pilot_whale_rescue.html)
Regarding reports of a MRSA outbreak at MMS, Fougeres commented that “MRSA is relatively common in the waters in the Keys.” She continued, “The precautions that MMC is currently taking for their volunteers have been determined by the Department of Health to be appropriate and they don’t have any public health concerns with regards to the MRSA, but everyone is very interested in trying to figure out where it is coming from, how it is transmitted, either from the people to the whales or the whales to the people, or from the water to the people or the whales, so everyone wants to learn more about it, but but it is far too early to say at this point whether that’s going to have an impact on future stranding protocols.” (http://joltleft.com/animal-advocacy-in-west-palm-beach/volunteers-and-pilot-whales-play-russian-roulette-at-marine-mammal-conservancy). A formal complaint charging MMC with exposing volunteers to disease was filed with NMFS by Russ Rector of the Dolphin Freedom Foundation.