As a student in the MPS marine mammal science track, I was fortunate enough to be one of the volunteers to respond to the recent mass stranding of pilot whales in Everglades National Park. I was a little apprehensive, as this was my first stranding experience. No one knew what to expect. After the early morning drive out to the Everglades, as well as an hour and a half boat ride, we arrived to the stranding site where we found about 50 pilot whales in barely three feet of water. All of the volunteers, law enforcement, NOAA officials, scientists, and even some concerned patrons huddled to generate an effective rescue strategy. It was truly inspiring to see so many people utilizing their precious time and resources in order to create the best possible outcome for the distressed whales.
Throughout the day, I was assigned various tasks to assist with the collection of samples acquired from live whales, as well as a necropsy of an expired whale. I was fascinated by the way the veterinarian and her team effectively tagged the animals and collected important blood and tissue samples, all while hanging off of the side of a flat bottom boat! I helped record the relevant data, which was a great first-hand experience in the amount of diligence that is put into collecting the samples, as well as keeping them all organized. Observing the necropsy also opened my eyes to the complexity and importance of these operations; various tissue samples from each organ must be obtained to send out to the appropriate laboratories for examination. This way, scientists are able to maximize the number of test results generated from a single sample, which will hopefully aid in discovering the reason for the stranding event.
After this experience, I am looking forward to being a regular member of the volunteers who respond to marine mammal strandings in southern Florida. I have a newfound respect for the scientists and veterinarians who organize these response efforts, especially after witnessing the amount of valuable scientific data that can be garnered just from one stranding incident. Our efforts to herd the group offshore on Wednesday proved to be successful, as the whales were recently spotted offshore, in deeper water, and swimming freely.
— MPS student Samantha Tufano
Photo credits: RSMAS/MPS student Maureen Duffy