Pilot whale makes rare return to wild after rehab at SeaWorld Orlando

Beachgoers found 'Gale' the whale beached in July

Gale, a rescued pilot whale, at SeaWorld Orlando's rehabilitation center.
Gale, a rescued pilot whale, at SeaWorld Orlando's rehabilitation center. (SeaWorld)

ORLANDO, Fla. – A little more than a month after it was found beached in Dixie County, a pilot whale, nicknamed Gale, was successfully returned to the wild after rehabilitation at SeaWorld Orlando.

The female, short-finned pilot whale, weighing 725 pounds, was rescued after beachgoers found her stranded in July.

NOAA Fisheries spokeswoman Kim Amendola said it's not often clear why marine mammals strand themselves on the beach. Since 2003 there have been six mass whale strandings along the Florida coast, including the most recent incident in 2016 in which 35 whales became beached in the lower Florida Keys.

Because dolphins and whales travel in tight social groups, if one marine mammal strands itself the entire group may follow, according to NOAA.

While it's not uncommon for a pilot whale to strand itself alive, Amendola said, this pilot whale's return to the wild was.

“What is rare, though, is for a pilot whale to be returned back to its natural habitat after stranding along the west coast of Florida, where the continental shelf is so wide,” Amendola said. “The transport for this whale to return it to its habitat was (about) 140 miles.”

University of Florida and Clearwater Marine Aquarium rescue teams helped get Gale to SeaWorld Orlando for medical assistance.

Working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, SeaWorld veterinarians and care teams were able to see signs of improvement as Gale started swimming on her own and eating fish.

The pilot whale was able to gain her strength back through diet and antibiotics, explained SeaWorld Orlando veterinarian Dr. Lara Croft, who was part of the Gale's rescue, rehabilitation and release.

 Gale went from having no appetite to eating up to 34 pounds of squid a day, Croft said.

“This whale was doomed to die on the beach and we were able to give her a second chance at life,” Croft said.

SeaWorld selected an area 140 miles off the west coast of Florida -- a known pilot whale habitat -- to return Gale to the wild. Because pilot whales live in mid-level water, SeaWorld needed the U.S. Coast Guard’s cutter Joshua Appleby to transport Gale back out into the Gulf, Jon Peterson, SeaWorld Rescue manager said.

“She needs to get into at least 500 meters of water,” Peterson said.

With the help of NOAA and the crew on the Joshua Appleby, Gale was successfully returned to the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday.

Croft said the team watched the pilot whale swim away strongly after her release.

“This is a rescue that has the greatest story to it, because she was rescued, she was rehabilitated and she was returned back out to its natural environment,” Peterson said.

Gale's rescuers hope that Gale will find a pod to join. Pilot whales are very social and known to travel in massive groups, or pods, that sometimes contain up to several hundred whales.

The pilot whale was tagged with a satellite tracking device, part of Chicago Zoological Society's Sarasota Dolphin Research Program. Researchers will be able to follow her movements and dive patterns for a few months.

Although known as pilot whales, the water mammals are actually part of the dolphin family.

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