Denise Jackson is working 24-hour shifts here in the Lower Keys, where 28 pilot whales stranded themselves in shallow water about two weeks ago. The volunteer training coordinator for the Florida Keys Marine Mammal Rescue Team logged less than 20 hours of sleep in the first eight days of rescue efforts.
"If you look in the whale's eyes one time, you're hooked," says Ms. Jackson, who stopped mid-sentence to help a frantic volunteer seeking the antibiotic dosage for whale "Number Four."
Volunteer workers track the whales by number, but they also give nicknames. To some, Number Four is "Big Guy." To others, he's "George." For all, emotions are intensifying after extensive rescue efforts and the death of Number Five, which was found floating in a canal after it escaped last week.
Thousands of volunteers have rallied to provide around-the-clock care to the ailing mammals. They follow the whales around with umbrellas to protect the mammals' skin from the sun. They also give regular blood tests, feed them, administer medicine, and bathe them in fresh water.
"We've had a huge outpouring of community support," says Becky Arnold, cofounder of the Upper Keys Marine Mammal Conservancy. "For a lot of people, it's a life-changing experience to be that close to a large wild animal that they ordinarily would never see."
And if the remaining six pilot whales survive, recovery time will be lengthy, says Laura Engleby of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service.
"It's a lot of work for animals that are essentially in a critical care unit at this stage in the game," Ms. Engleby says. "Volunteers get very passionate and very attached to these whales."
Ms. Jackson, who has volunteered on mammal rescue teams since 1988, says it never gets easier to watch the animals suffer or die. Even when they survive, the experience hits hard.
"There are such mixed emotions when you release the whales," she says. "On one hand, you are so happy that they made it, but on the other hand, you are so sad that they are going. It just kills you, and you don't know whether to laugh or cry."