Pilot whales stranded in shallow Florida waters; at least three dead
- NEW: Three whales have died and there may be more, officials say
- NEW: 7 others are being treated at a holding pen at a marina in Cudjoe Key, Florida
- Early Friday morning, rescuers were able to move six of the whales to a safer place
- Adult pilot whales can measure up to 20 feet long and weigh up to 3 tons
Miami, Florida (CNN) -- Rescuers worked feverishly Friday to save a group of pilot whales who stranded themselves in shallow waters near the Florida Keys, officials said.
There were more than 16 pilot whales stranded in an area about 20 miles north of Key West, said Art Cooper, vice chairman of the Marine Mammal Conservancy.
Officials say three whales are now confirmed dead and there may be more.
Seven others are being treated at a holding pen at a marina in Cudjoe Key, Florida.
"It's a way to control the situation and to serve as protection for the volunteers and for the animals," said Karrie Carnes, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spokeswoman with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
By about 4 a.m. ET Friday a team of about 50 people were able to get six of the whales into a safer area and were protecting them with a sea pen they had created, Cooper said.
The group of whales were spread out in about a four-mile area in waters that were as shallow as three inches in some areas.
The situation for the animals was dire because mass strandings can be a sign of some kind of sickness in some of the whales, Cooper said. Also being stuck in shallow waters makes them vulnerable to predators.
"It is a bad situation for them when they get in the shallows and thrash around and bloody themselves," said Cooper. "If there is nobody to intervene for them they will die."
Carnes also said the whales are in a perilous situation.
"It is highly likely that these animals are emaciated, that they are compromised," said Carnes.
Adult pilot whales can measure up to 20 feet long and weigh up to 3 tons. Due to their social nature, they are often involved in mass strandings, according to the American Cetacean Society. The ACS is a non-profit group based in California that works to protect whales, dolphins and porpoises, according to its website.
The workers are "taking vital signs, blood samples and general health assessments," Carnes said.
Wet sheets are being placed over their bodies in an effort to block the sun and keep them moist. But officials say that determining the exact number of whales stranded is difficult because of the tides.
"It's like trying to hit a moving target," said Carnes."We have reports of a few more, that are alive, and a few more that are dead."
Officials say it is not yet clear why the whales stranded themselves.
A similar incident occurred in the Florida Keys in 2003, when 28 whales were stranded. Most of them died, but after several months of care, five were released back into the ocean.
Carnes told CNN that they will determine the health and the hope to transfer the pilot whales to a rehabilitation facility in Key Largo.
Last year, dozens of pilot whales died in northern New Zealand after 58 of them were stranded on a remote beach.
CNN's Rich Phillips and Lateef Mungin contributed to this report.