MIAMI — Veterinarians fed fish drinks to five rescued pilot whales Sunday and kept a close eye on them, trying to nurse the mammals back to health so they can one day return to the ocean.
The five whales were among a group of 22 whales beached in South Florida on Saturday. The rest died of natural causes or had to be euthanized.
The two calves and three juveniles were brought to Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Institute for rehabilitation. Experts said the animals were worn out, but mostly doing well.
"They've all been through a pretty stressful ordeal. We've seen each of them, at one point or another, have a little bit of trouble and need a little bit of help," said Dr. Michelle Davis, senior veterinarian for SeaWorld Orlando.
Some of the whales have been breathing faster than usual at times, causing them to float away from the group and become less active, she said.
Several organizations were working together to care for the whales. About 10 people monitored them around the clock and one person was assigned to each whale to watch it constantly. The whales are being fed fish smoothies through a feeding tube every four hours.
Wildlife experts believe the youngest whale – a female under the age of 2 – was still nursing. Her mother did not survive.
"The baby is swimming around the group, calling and whistling for the mother, so we're working to become the mom," said Stephen McCulloch, Harbor Branch program manager.
Experts are teaching her to drink formula from a bottle.
Davis said it was not clear why the whale pod stranded at Avalon Beach State Park in St. Lucie County.
Allison Garrett, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries service, said it's possible one of the animals became sick and the rest of the pod followed it onshore.
"They won't leave (a sick whale). They'll stay together," she said.
The five survivors have only minor injuries and scrapes. The goal was to get the five whales strong enough to survive a roughly two-hour trip to their new home at SeaWorld, which could take about a week.
Davis said she did not know how long it would be before the whales could be released back to the ocean. Until they get better, the whales will rehabilitate together in a pool.
"Even now in the pool, most of them are staying together and swimming around together all the time. That's definitely a way to decrease their stress level," she said.
Hundreds of residents came to the beach to help Saturday, flipping the animals upright so they could breathe better. Volunteers covered the whales with moist towels and poured water over them.
By evening, it was clear that most of the whales would not make it. Necropsies will be performed on them.
Associated Press writer Norman Gomlak in Atlanta contributed to this report.