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Volunteers Nurse Whales in Fla. Keys

June 5, 2003

BIG PINE KEY, Fla. (AP) _ At a swimming hole some 30 miles north of Key West, volunteers tend day and night to five ailing pilot whales who stranded themselves for reasons unknown.

The recovering whales could be released in as little as two weeks, thanks to the people who have been working from a small tent city of folding tables and trailers that hold medical supplies and food on the nearby shore.

During a recent early morning at the football field-sized lagoon, Pam Childers spoke softly as she fed little silver fish into the toothy maw of whale No. 3 _ who is alternately called Angel and Jaws, depending on whether she bites the volunteers along with her breakfast.

On this day she was Angel, all 975 pounds of her.

``Here you go, good girl,″ Childers whispered, as Angel rolled on her side, exposing her chin for a rub.

In all, 28 pilot whales beached themselves April 18 in the Florida Keys, one of the largest such strandings in the region in recent years. Eight died, six were euthanized and nine swam away.

The five whales still recovering could, if blood tests check out, be released within two weeks, said Rick Trout, director of animal care at the Marine Mammal Conservancy.

The rescue operation, run entirely by volunteers, is overseen by National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration fisheries. Volunteers and workers for the marine organizations have the agency’s permission to touch the protected species, otherwise a federal offense.

The efforts to help the whales have taxed the volunteers _ and drawn criticism.

The day the whales beached, volunteers looked for a suitable place to contain them, but poor communication prevented the group from going to a nearby location that was being prepared, Trout said. Instead the whales were taken to a place farther away.

The wasted time prevented volunteers from containing all the animals. Some swam away that possibly should have been rehabilitated, and it’s possible those animals died at sea, Trout said.

But at the lagoon with the whales splashing nearby, such concerns are overshadowed by the challenges of luring the mammals into the hands of volunteers for the next feeding, and keeping hundreds of snappers, attracted by the whale food, from biting bare fingers in the water.

In addition, donations and volunteers are needed to keep the program going. All the medicine, equipment and food _ herring, Columbia River smelt and caplin _ are donated. The food would have cost tens of thousands of dollars, said Denise Jackson, stranding coordinator for the Florida Keys Marine Mammal Rescue Team.

``We have to beg, borrow and steal everything,″ Jackson said.

Visitors are greeted by an eraser board with a wish list of donations, asking for fins and flippers, toilet paper, and ``clones for staff.″

Initially, 150 volunteers were needed each day to hold up the whales because they were too weak to swim by themselves, Jackson said. The whales have regained their strength _ one broke Trout’s rib with its powerful tail when he was taking a blood sample.

Now only eight to 10 volunteers are needed for each four-hour shift during the day, and one person monitors the whales at night. Some volunteers hold plastic barriers in the water to corral the whales; others hold them during feedings, hand feed the whales or help prepare the food.

``It’s so magical,″ said Betty Brothers, a Keys resident who visits the whales and volunteers daily, bringing food, money and other donations. ``It’s so energizing to have people the way they are _ coming in, sacrificing their time, their abilities.″

One volunteer, 21-year-old Shaun Tamosaitis, quit his job waiting tables and tending bar in Colchester, Conn., and moved to Florida to help care for the whales. Tamosaitis is staying with his sister in Key West and living off his tax return.

``It’s been a dream come true for me,″ said Tamosaitis, who wants to study marine biology. ``I’m having the time of my life.″

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On the Net:

Marine Mammal Conservatory: http://www.marinemammalconsv.org/

National Marine Fisheries Service: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/

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