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Seven stranded whales die in Florida

KEY WEST, Fla., April 19 (UPI) -- Seven of the more than 30 pilot whales stranded in shallow water off Big Pine Key in Key West, Fla., Friday have died, WPLG-TV reported.

The black whales were seen distinctly against the muddy water about a half-mile offshore in the Contents Passage near the Content Keys, a group of small islands on the Gulf of Mexico.

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There were two groups of whales, one a group of about 27, and another of about five.

About 50 rescuers from the U.S. Coast Guard, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Marine Mammal Rescue Team and the Marine Mammal Conservancy are tending the surviving whales, WPLG-TV reported.

The rescuers, as well as volunteers, have attempted to stabilize the whales, covering them with sheets to keep them from being sunburned and treating them for dehydration.

According to marine specialist Laura Engleby, it will be difficult to move the whales to deeper water because the water is so shallow. A barge from a towing and salvage company was assisting with the rescue and recovery effort.

During the day, many of the whales appeared to be in distress gasping for air, tails flapping.

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Pilot whales are black, about 15 to 17 feet long and weigh about 1,600 to 1,800 pounds. Some travel in large pods of several dozen and they have been stranded or beached in the Keys and other coastal waters before.

In the summer of 2002, more than 50 pilot whales were stranded on Cape Cod, Mass. Volunteers tried to treat the whales and several were pushed out into deeper ocean water, but several returned to the shallow water of the coast. Some of the whales had to be euthanized because they had become so weak.

Marine experts have not been able to explain why marine mammals such as whales or dolphins get stranded in shallow waters. Some theories on the beachings include illness, navigational disorientation or empathy of other whales to follow a whale into the shallow water.

Some theorize loud man-made noise in the ocean may disorient the whales because they use "sonar" or, more correctly, bat-like echolocation, which enables them to "see" with their ears by listening for echoes.

U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn told a congressional inquiry in 2001 that the loudest non-explosive man-made noise in the ocean came from airguns with levels up to 255 decibels used in seismic exploration, the Web site the age.com.au reports.

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