Florida Keys volunteers fight to keep stranded pilot whales alive

Since the first plea for help came over a Keys radio station, hundreds of volunteers have worked around the clock to save pilot whales that mysteriously stranded themselves in shallow waters.

The massive effort, now entering its third week, includes veterinarians, retirees, college kids, a paraplegic, two-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer Steve Lundquist and blockbuster filmmaker Jon Landau of Titanic and Avatar fame.

Some volunteers have worked shifts as long as 40 hours. Occupational therapist Brenda Ewer and her boyfriend Brad Azar postponed their “cruising” to the Bahamas on a trimaran to run a makeshift kitchen to feed the weary volunteers.

“We’re exhausted at the end of the day, but it is just amazing to connect with the whales,” Ewer said. “And I’ve noticed that as much as the humans are helping the whales, the whales are helping the humans.”

Blair Mase, the marine mammal stranding coordinator for NOAA’s Southeast Region, said events like this stranding of a pod of 23 whales “brings out the heart and soul of the people of the Keys.”

The massive rescue that began on May 5 is now a rehabilitation effort to nurse the remaining four survivors back to health. They were found in critical condition, all with some form of pneumonia and various other problems.

The effort appears to be paying off.

“I’m very cautiously optimistic we can save all four,” said Douglas Mader, one of the volunteer veterinarians.

The Marine Mammal Conservancy, the nonprofit organization leading the effort to save the whales, can be found at the end of a dusty dirt road off U.S. 1 in Key Largo. Its critical care unit operates from a hodgepodge of old trailers, shade tents and a sea pen.

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