With a flip in the water and a thrust of her tail, a pregnant Atlantic bottlenose dolphin delivered the second calf of the species to be born in the National Aquarium's 120,000-gallon maternity pool.
The dramatic delivery at 6:30 a.m. yesterday by the 13-year-old Hailey ended several months of nervous waiting by her mammalogist keepers, who believed the pregnancy was proving difficult. They found late last year that Hailey was having liver problems, and feared that the mother would not be able to survive the birth.
Senior mammalogist Nedra Hecker said the aquarium "almost lost" Hailey last year. "We brought her back to health."
The new mother and baby seemed to be doing just fine, Ms. Hecker said, noting that the calf started nursing within three hours of its birth.
But the aquarium staff kept a constant watch last night over the segregated maternity pool, to assure no complication arose as the mother and baby circled the pool together -- at times swimming in what appeared to be patterns with their 13-year-old companion, Shiloh, and her dolphin calf born March 7.
The new cause for celebration was about 3 feet long and weighed about 35 pounds.
The calf, whose sex has yet to be determined, brings to seven the total number of dolphins at the aquarium.
The first days of a dolphin's life are critical, Ms. Hecker said, and there are other benchmarks after that.
"You're really not out of the woods until the calf stops nursing," which is after 18 months, she said.
Ms. Hecker was on hand to witness the birth and 2 hours and 50 minutes of labor preceding it.
Officials knew Wednesday that Hailey was about to give birth, Ms. Hecker said, because the dolphin ate just several pounds of fish. The aquarium's dolphins normally eat about 20 pounds of fish each day.
Ms. Hecker said seeing the birth of Shiloh's calf probably helped Hailey, a first-time mother weighing 380 pounds and measuring about 8 feet long. About 20 percent of the calves born to first-time mother dolphins, in the wild and in captivity, are stillborn, aquarium officials said.
"She knew immediately when her calf was born what to do with it," Ms. Hecker said.
The aquarium's videotape shows Hailey nuzzling her newborn within seconds of its birth.
She said Hailey and her calf had begun "echelon" swimming, where the calf's position within the slipstream of the mother helps draw the calf forward. "They can actually sleep in that position," Ms. Hecker said.
Aquarium officials decided to close the dolphin amphitheater to the public through tomorrow. Ms. Hecker said the amphitheater may be open for some "quiet visitation" on Sunday.
Because of the restrictions, Aquarium officials are discounting each admission ticket by $2.
Vicki Aversa, an Aquarium spokeswoman, said closed-circuit video footage of the new mothers and their calves is being shown throughout the facility. A video of the birth of Hailey's calf also is being shown.
Both calves probably were sired by Akai, the aquarium's dominant male dolphin, officials said.
"This is successful, we're going to have two little babies growing up together," Ms. Hecker said. "That's kind of neat."
Neither calf has been named, because their sex has not been determined. It takes several weeks to be sure, Ms. Hecker said.
She and her colleagues think Shiloh's calf, which now weighs more than 50 pounds and is about 4 feet long, is a female.
About 20 bottlenose dolphins are born each year in aquariums and marine parks around the country. About 200 dolphins have been born in captivity since 1976, officials said.
Ms. Hecker said the calves probably will remain at the Aquarium for at least several years. After that, they may have to be moved to another aquarium to avoid inbreeding.