I came to know -- briefly -- the second largest creature on Earth.
Like a sputtering, derailed locomotive, a 60-foot, 50-ton fin whale had become stranded in the shallows of the James River near Newport News, Va. I watched it suffer immensely. Then I helped put it out of its misery.
The scientists tending to it said it had kidney disease. The several days it spent stuck on sandbars had done irreversible damage to its internal organs.
I could only imagine the animal in all its splendor on the open ocean.
Veterinarian Robert George named it "Rambling Rose," though its sex was never determined. As a reporter at the time for the Newport News Daily Press, I wrote about the whale, while experts from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and elsewhere tried in vain to help free it from the confines of the river.
On Nov. 5, 1987, when it was clear that Rose would never again ply the surging seas, I stood chest-deep in the river, expecting to chronicle the mercy killing of the animal. I ended up a participant. During the three-hour operation, Dr. George and VIMS biologist Dr. Jack Musick managed to get a lethal, three-liter dose of pentobarbital down its blow hole and into its lungs.
Few similar operations had been tried. Sick whales and dolphins periodically become beached in the mid-Atlantic region, but nearly all are dead by the time they are discovered.
At one point, Dr. George got one of his arms stuck in the whale's blow hole. "This was absolutely the worst experience I've had in my 15 years of veterinarian medicine," he would say afterward.
Now, when the image of the dying whale comes to mind, I hope it lived a full life.
Fin whales have a life expectancy of up to 45 years. They can grow up to 80 feet long and weigh up to 70 tons. Only blue whales -- measuring up to nearly 100 feet, weighing up to 120 tons -- surpass fin whales.
"Whales," a text by Jacques Cousteau and Yves Paccalet, says: "More than any other whale, this swift, gigantic cetacean creates an immediate impression of power. . . . The fin whale is sleekness incarnate."
Muscle makes up 45 percent of its body weight. Its brain weighs 11 pounds, more than three times that of a human. It can hit speeds of up to 33 mph while fleeing, and it can dive more than 1,000 feet below the surface.
The whale, dark gray on top and white underneath, strains herring, krill and squid from the sea through 360 pairs of fibrous plates called baleen, or whalebone, in its mouth.
Its right lower jaw is white and its left lower jaw is black, making it the only asymmetrically colored species among the whales, dolphins and porpoises. Scientists think the coloring is an adaptation related to feeding.
Experts believe there were perhaps 1 million fin whales worldwide several hundred years ago. Hunting has reduced the population to about 60,000.
Killing Rose was an act of mercy, but we were still sending another fin whale to its grave. If only I had known the animal in its shining moments, instead of its darkest hours.