Florida mile marker 102 is easy to miss, and many of the volunteers coming to help save three struggling pilot whales have to make a U-turn on U.S. 1 before pulling into the inconspicuous dirt road marked by a small sign, "Marine Mammal Conservancy."

The three young whales, two still young enough to be dependent on their mothers for feeding and one, a late teen, are notably smaller than the huge humpbacks that usually come to mind when we think of beached whales.

These are only nine to 12 feet long, and if they survive, will only grow to 16 to 20 feet on average. Under a small tent on the Key Largo beach, their shiny bodies, like black bowling balls, poke out of the water as people in wet suits crowd around to help.

Two pedestrians and a kayaker were the first to report 16 whales stranded in the area by Cudjoe Key. When the Marine Mammal Conservancy got on the scene, it turned out there were 26 whales in the 12-mile area.  The fates of these whales differed; some died from heat exposure and were eaten by sharks, three had to be euthanized, two were eventually released into the wild, and three of the four that were relocated to mile marker 102 remain under the care of the Marine Mammal Conservancy.  Unfortunately, one of the four was euthanized.

Robert Lingenfelser, president of the Marine Mammal Conservancy, believes that whales beach themselves not only because they’ve been injured by a boat or a shark, but because they are often sick with an infection, much like human beings get sick.  "The simplest reason is usually the correct one," says Lingenfelser explaining why these pilot whales may have ended up on the coast of the Florida Keys. "These are air-breathing, intelligent creatures. Would you run a marathon while you are sick?" 

Pilot whales travel in pods in tropical and subtropical waters.  They are small, fast swimmers, often known as the "cheetahs of the sea." They can hold their breath for 40 minutes at a time. For whales, swimming is much like jogging or walking, and when they are sick or injured they need to take a break from exercise and use their energy for healing. Like us, when they are sick, they just want to lie down. Additionally, swimming slowly in open waters is very dangerous as it puts the small whales at risk for shark attacks.

What is unclear in this case is what kind of infection plagued these whales (and if other factors like warmer water temperature or pollution had some effect).

The three whales remaining on the beach are young whales.

Sometimes, healthy, young whales follow sick adults to a beach, but these youngsters appear sick.

Thanks to virtually every major voice in marine science chiming in to help, however, and the Marine Mammal Conservancy’s round-the-clock care, the fate of the three remaining young whales is hopeful.  

A few moments on the scene of the Key Largo shore, and it’s obvious that volunteers are not just there selling t-shirts (although they can sell t-shirts). With no prior experience, eager volunteers sign up for four-hour slots day and night, doing imperative jobs like holding up the whales so that they can breath in the water. "They are too sick to swim," explains Lingenfelser. The weary creatures cannot even keep themselves afloat. Volunteers also help take vital readings such as heart rate or breath rate.

Ted Braunstein had quite a unique experience after driving over an hour down south for his first time as a volunteer.  He got on his wetsuit, and got into the water, only to be told that although scientists from around the world had tried to help the sick whale he was assigned to, there was nothing more they could do. The whale had to be euthanized. And so 14 people held and comforted the whale as he passed away.

Ted uses two words to describe the almost ceremonial process of euthanizing the whale, "professional” and “beautiful." "Most human beings don’t get to die this way," he explains. The Conservancy was able to protect the whale from the harsh, brutal death that a dying whale would endure at sea.  And thus even in death, the Marine Mammal Conservancy was able to help the whale. 

Outside the water, on a makeshift desk in the slow Key Largo shade, the phone rings every few minutes—mostly people, like Braunstein, wanting to help in any way they can.

On the hidden beach, the rhythm of tireless volunteers’ coming and going is like a pacemaker for the three remaining injured animals; and the steady beat seems to tell the story of our inherent connection to a life-form we don’t fully understand.  

Track the released whales at: Marine Mammal Conservancy

About the Author: Michelle Bialeck is a recent graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Aside from writing, Michelle has worked as an English teacher and a coordinator for a nonprofit in the South Bronx. Michelle is from Miami and currently lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.