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When they got to the beach, John Buckley waded through the shallow waters in a canoe while his wife stayed aboard the boat, counting the whales drifting before her. In their 28 years as volunteers in the Everglades, they had seen only one whale stranded before.
John Buckley climbed ashore and ran to one of about nine whales stuck on the sand. He grabbed its tail and began to pull.
"Once the whale could feel the water, it reacted," John Buckley, 72, said. "It wanted to help."
The whale flapped at him, knocking him into the water. He got back up and continued pushing the whale until it was entirely back in the water. Three park rangers then arrived and started working with him to pull the other whales off the beach.
The whales they were able to help save seemed ill, Donna Buckley said.
"They seemed very disoriented, confused," she said. "They didn't know which end was up."
The next day seemed to only confirm their suspicions that the whales were sick. The couple said the animals drifted languidly in the water, as if, John Buckley imagined, paralyzed by grief. He recalled how the whales seemed to look at him, quietly acknowledging his presence.
"They could have just rammed me and knocked me over, but they didn't do it," he said. "I could tell there was some thinking going on there. I just didn't understand."