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Release of whales rehearsed

A team of experts and volunteers used a delay to practice how the whales will be freed.

By Associated Press
Published August 10, 2003

BIG PINE KEY - Marine experts performed a dry run Saturday of the release of five stranded pilot whales off the Florida Keys and fine-tuned the procedure to return the mammals to the open sea.

Human volunteers posed as whales and were loaded onto boats and towed out to sea, said Laura Engleby, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries marine biologist.

The release was postponed until today because officials thought a vessel that will track the whales would arrive late. The ship is now in the Keys.

"We have all the equipment here, we field-tested it today and everything looks great," Engleby said.

Today, the experts will perform the first simultaneous release of five whales from a single stranding incident in the United States. Releasing even one whale is rare, officials said.

The five whales, four adult females and one yearling male, have been recovering in the Keys for nearly four months. They will be tagged with electronic tracking devices and monitored in the water. If one doesn't thrive, it will be recaptured and brought back to the Keys.

Although blood tests showed the whales were healthy enough to be released, some officials worried the young male could struggle without his mother. Officials were also concerned about a female that has not socialized well.

The whales are among 28 that stranded April 18 in the Keys. It's unclear why they stranded, but marine experts say some showed signs of old age. Eight died, six were euthanized and nine swam away.

The remaining whales recovered under the 24-hour watch of volunteers, who held the animals in the water until they were strong enough to swim, hand-fed them and, more recently, helped condition them to return to the open water.

That included throwing fish to them from the shore instead of feeding them by hand At high tide this morning, about 50 experts and volunteers planned to lift the whales with cranes onto slings and load them onto boats, which will take them about 12 miles offshore to the edge of the continental shelf.

[Last modified August 10, 2003, 02:02:50]

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