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Whale Stranding Raises Fear That Dolphin Virus Has Spread

catspyjamasnz via Flickr

Difficult rescue efforts continue at this hour for a band of pilot whales that beached on an isolated shoreline at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula Wednesday morning. There are fears the whales may have fallen victim to a deadly virus that has been killing dolphins along the east coast.

4 of the 9 whales that beached themselves have already died, according to reports relayed from the remote scene. They were part of a pod of more than 30 pilot whales that all seemed to be headed for shore. The scene is a place called Highland Beach, accessible only by boat, and there's no cell phone coverage. Linda Friar, who works at Everglades National Park several miles away, has been in touch with the rescuers by radio.

"The biologists are out there trying to herd the whales into deeper water", said Friar. "They tried it once and it didn't work and they're right now trying a second operation. If that doesn’t work, they'll step back and see what other strategy to put in place."

Pilot whales are a species known for stranding. They are gregarious, highly social, and they tend to follow leaders. That works well for migration and finding food, says marine life expert Steve McCulloch at Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, but only when the leader is well.

"When one animal becomes ill or compromised to some extent or goes off course, the other animals are very bonded and can follow them to the beach", said McCulloch.

Examinations of the whales that died may lead to an explanation of the mass stranding. But McCulloch worries it may be related to mass deaths of marine mammals off the US east coast.

"We're seeing a high degree of mortality in dolphins and some other dolphins as well", said McCulloch. "I know the first thing they'll want to investigate is if these animals have the same morbilli virus".

McCulloch says the "morbilli" virus causes a disease similar to distemper in dogs. The site of the stranding is very difficult for the rescuers. Linda Friar at the national park describes it as "multiple football fields" of shallow water that only skilled boaters can negotiate. But because it's isolated, there will be no problem with leaving four dead whales on the shoreline to let nature take its course.