Times Staff Writer
INDIAN SHORES — The sun had yet to rise. A strong breeze from the Gulf of Mexico cooled the otherwise warm and muggy Indian Shores beach. The surf was choppy Friday morning as Bonnie Charity began her daily walk, unlike some days when it’s still and smooth as glass.
It was just after 6 a.m. She was picking up trash along the beach as does every morning. After dragging a gas can from the surf to a trash can, she headed back to the water to drag up what she thought was a forlorn palm frond.
That’s when she found the whale.
"When I saw it, I thought it was just a big huge palm frond in the water and I was going to drag it up," Charity said. "I couldn’t tell what it was until I got right up in it."
That’s when the 61-year-old Largo resident and another passerby, Jason McCarty, sprung into action.
"Okay baby, we have help coming," she told the whale, trying to comfort it as it writhed and squealed among the shallow surf, stuck in soft sand beneath a few inches of incoming tide. "We’ve got help coming, poor thing."
Patrols from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium were nearby, but couldn’t help. They’d had to wait for a rescue biologist, a sort of first responder for sea life, to show up. It was up to Charity and McCarty to keep the 8-foot long whale stable.
"The priority is to keep them calm, get their face out of the water and keep their blowhole clear," said Kerry Sanchez, a rescue biologist with Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
Sanchez arrived just before 7:30 a.m. Charity and McCarty had been sitting in the surf, calming and cradling the whale for more than an hour.
They continued to help as Sanchez was able to communicate with National Marine Fishery Services and veterinarians to determine the whale’s condition, deciding it would need to be transported for rehabilitation. She was also able to help identify it as an adult male Melon-Headed Whale, a species native to the Gulf that prefers deeper waters. Unlike the bottle-nosed dolphins usually found in the area, finding a Melon-Headed Whale this close to a beach is rare, Sanchez said. She said it’s the third Melon-Headed Whale to wash up on a Pinellas County beach in the past two years.
"They’re not super well known," she said. "We just don’t see them a lot."
While she was wading and waiting with the whale, Charity named him Sandy.
"I was so worried about him. I couldn’t even get excited until I was driving home," Charity said. "I just wanted him to live. But it was probably one of the top five things in my life. It was amazing now that I think about it."
Crews were able to get Sandy off the beach after 10 a.m. Sanchez said he’s now headed for rehabilitation at a SeaWorld Orlando facility.
Michelle Kerr, of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said people should never push beached animals back into the water and should always be cautious around wildlife.
"Stranded marine mammals can be sick or injured, and may be capable of powerful and unpredictable moves," Kerr said. "Pushing an animal back to sea delays, and may hinder, the chance for experienced rescue teams to assess and provide treatment if necessary — and in some cases may cause injury or death of an animal."
Anyone who finds a stranded animal on shore is asked to contact FWC’s wildlife alert hotline at (888) 404-3922.
Charity was a little banged up and a little cramped when she got back to the Largo condo she’s shared with her husband since they moved from Syracuse, N.Y., five years ago. She had to cut her daily 4-mile walk a little short Friday, but that’s okay.
"How lucky am I to have experienced that," she said. "Wow. That was well worth it."
Contact Daniel Figueroa IV at [email protected] Follow @danuscripts.