Stranded pilot whale airlifted in emergency rescue

July 08, 1992|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Staff Writer

A young pilot whale stranded on the beach at Assateague Island National Seashore was rushed yesterday afternoon to the National Aquarium's marine mammal emergency room in a dramatic rescue operation.

The female whale -- about 18 months old, 7 feet long, weighing 400 to 500 pounds, and perhaps still nursing from its mother when it got into trouble -- was found in shallow water by park rangers.

As the tide ran out, and the creature became stranded on the sand, rangers and volunteers among the gathering spectators tried to keep its skin wet, covering the whale with a sheet and shading it with a tarp set up as a temporary tent.

The stranded-whale alert reached the aquarium in Baltimore through a telephone call from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in a rescue effort that grew to involve the Virginia Marine Science Institute and the Coast Guard.

David Schofield, aquarium staff mammalogist and marine stranding coordinator, drove to Assateague to supervise the removal of the whale and its ride to NASA's Wallops Island airstrip. There the animal was picked up by a Coast Guard HC-130 turboprop cargo plane in a stretcher designed for cetaceans.

The plane's pilot and crew, based south of Norfolk at Elizabeth City, N.C., were scheduled for a training flight yesterday. And their trip to Baltimore-Washington International Airport carrying the whale -- at the request of the aquarium and Maryland DNR police -- became the day's mission, a Coast Guard official said.

The whale arrived by truck at the loading dock of the Marine Mammal Pavilion on Pier 4 at 4:35 p.m. It was wheeled in its stretcher to the aquarium's 90,000-gallon, 15-foot-deep "emergency room" isolation pool -- a facility adjacent to the dolphin amphitheater that was designed in part for the care of stranded marine mammals.

Although the New England Aquarium has taken in stranded whales in the past, this was the first ever brought to the Baltimore marine showplace.

The pool was filled to a depth of only 2 to 3 feet, and Mr. Schofield stood in the water as the whale was lowered and released -- a scary moment as the animal began thrashing, swam rapidly across the enclosure and repeatedly hit the wall with its restrum, or snout.

But the whale tired in a few minutes, and became still, as aquarium staff members, Mr. Schofield and two veterinarians huddled above the pool.

The creature appeared to be the long-finned species of pilot whale, found in cooler waters than its short-finned cousins. The waters off the Maryland coast are near the southernmost part of the long-finned variety's habitat. The specialists think it may have become separated from a "pod" of whales seen off Assateague recently.

Mr. Schofield said there were pox marks over much of the whale's black body, an indication of a virus.

Meanwhile, the whale remains under round-the-clock observation, being offered fresh-frozen squid or herring, in the hope that it will eventually be returned to the wild.

"It'll be in critical care for a while," said aquarium spokeswoman Amy Woodworth.

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