25-Year-Old Paraplegic Saves A Pod of Whales Off The Florida Keys

Photo: Lisa Coakley / Bob Care

On May 5th, a pod of approximately 25 pilot whales began to strand off Cudjoe Key in Florida. The Marine Mammal Conservancy (MMC) rushed out to assess the situation and located 6 potential whales as rescue candidates.

Enter Darren Brown.

The 25-year-old paraplegic — who crashed his motorcycle in 2005, spent 8 months in the hospital, and even after years of rehab still can’t feel anything below his chest — was ready and willing to help. He heard what was happening and immediately rushed over to see if he could use his boat to help rescue the stranded pilot whales. Despite this handicap, MMC’s Stranding Coordinator Robert Lingenfelser, the man in charge of the rescue operation, quickly realized that Darren’s knowledge of the local waters on a night with no moon would be a great asset. The volunteers soon learned that calling Darren’s skill a great asset was a huge understatement.

Without missing a beat, Darren went into action. Within 30 minutes, he was back at the staging area with his boat — and ready to save the whales. It was 10:20 pm and all government support vessels had just pulled out. It was now a civilian-only rescue event with one whale in the rescue pen and five stranded whales still out in the waters.

Darren and a team of volunteers quickly sped away in his boat to rescue two of the stranded whales. After a 30 minute ride out into the water, the boat arrived just in time. If they had taken any longer to arrive, the rising water would have drowned the whales.They loaded both of those whales together for an hour and a half ride transfer back to the rescue pen.

And just when you think that this story is starting to turn into an unbelievable made-for-TV-movie, you should know that among the team of volunteers was Jon Landau, producer of Titanic AND Avatar. (Yes, it was a star-studded rescue!)

When the two stranded whales were safely in the rescue pen, Darren told Jon Landau he wished he had played the paraplegic in Avatar. Jon replied “to forget starring in Avatar, because after tonight you are a real life hero.”

Darren preceded to make three more runs over the next two and a half hours until all the animals were brought into the pen. It wasn’t until 3:15 AM that Darren took a break and went home for the night. When I spoke to Darren about staying out all night saving the stranded whales, he responded nonchalantly that, “I wasn’t there to be a hero, I was there to get it done.”

He returned in the morning, ready to get back to work. After locating four dead whales and hearing no reports of any more live whales, Darren began the day long process of recovering three of the dead whales. Between his determination and his boating skills, the almost impossible challenge suddenly become very achievable.

Steve Lundquist, two-time Olympic gold medalist and a part of the rescue team, commented that he’s never seen someone navigate a boat better in his entire life.

Of the eight whales who safely made it to the rescue pen, one was euthanized, two were released, and five remain. It is without a doubt that Darren Brown was directly responsible for saving the lives of one of the released whales and four of the remaining whales.

Five of the remaining whales were transferred to the MMC facility in Key Largo last night for further rehabilitation.

So today we celebrate the life of a real hero. A twenty-something who took time out of his days to do the right thing. And maybe that’s what we need to remember. It doesn’t take much to make a difference in the world. It just takes a little motivation, a cause you believe in, and the knowledge that you can do something good — even on a dark night.

The Marine Mammal Conservancy (MMC) is committed to protecting Marine Mammals & Their Habitats Through Research, Rescue, Rehabilitation, Release and Education. CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE ORGANIZATION.
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