HOLLYWOOD, Fla. – Rescuers failed in a frantic bid to save a mother whale and her baby after the pair ran aground off a South Florida beach Monday as hundreds looked on, many in tears. Neither animal survived despite efforts to keep them alive with moist towels and umbrellas to protect their drying skin from the scorching sun.
A team of marine mammal specialists hoped desperate efforts would save the troubled whales after they became trapped in shallow waters at Hollywood beach, just north of Miami. The mother died and the calf had to be euthanized, authorities said.
Swimmers spotted the whales around 1 p.m. in waist-deep water and sought to encourage them to head back toward deeper water. The whales briefly swam away, then returned and tried to head back toward the beach.
The mother — which experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration identified as a beaked whale — was about 10 to 12 feet long. The baby was about half her size.
Some placed towels on the whales to prevent their skin from drying, said Eileen Vulpis, who watched the rescue attempt. Volunteers waded into the water and held umbrellas over the whales in hopes of further shielding them from the sun as summertime crowd of tourists and local residents looked on.
The mother whale died, and the calf was brought next to her and later euthanized by a marine mammal specialist as a crowd looked on.
"I have tears in my eyes," said Vulpis. "Everyone here is upset, everyone really thought they were going to try to save the baby."
Approximately 300 people stood by in a somber scene, some crying. Dozens with video and still cameras waded into the water, trying to get closer to the whales as authorities kept others back behind yellow police tape. A police helicopter hovered nearby.
Blair Mase, a stranding coordinator for the government's National Marine Fisheries Service, said beaked whales normally do not survive in captivity, and that the calf would have been unable to survive without its mother.
Experts will perform necropsies on both whales, Mase said.
It was not immediately clear what caused them to beach.
Mase said whales can beach themselves for a variety of reasons, including climate conditions, disorientation after hearing a loud noise, sickness and parasites.
There are normally one or two so-called "beaching events" of beaked whales a year in South Florida, according to NOAA experts. But they noted it's still a traumatic event for beachgoers to witness.
Some in the crowd were parents trying to explain what was happening to young children.
"Whales tear at our heartstrings," said Mase.