Stranded pilot whale may have fatal illness Chances of survival drop, but officials still hold out hope.

July 08, 1992|By Bruce Reid and David Michael Ettlin | Bruce Reid and David Michael Ettlin,Staff Writers

A stranded pilot whale rescued from the surf at Assateague Island National Seashore yesterday appears to be have a severe gastro-intestinal infection, officials at the National Aquarium said today.

The chances of it surviving are not good, said David Schofield, an aquarium mammalogist. Still, he added, a 24-hour watch is continuing, and more diagnostic procedures are scheduled later today.

"It was stranded during its critical time," Mr. Schofield said. The 7-foot-long female whale, thought to be about 18 months to 2 years old, probably was being weaned by its mother, he said, so its immune system was weakened.

The animal, a long-finned pilot whale weighing 400 to 500 pounds, has been placed on a regimen of fluids, antibiotics and vitamins. It is neither swimming nor eating but is resting on the surface of an 90,000-gallon, 15-foot-deep isolation pool -- a facility adjacent to the dolphin amphitheater that was designed in part for the care of stranded marine mammals.

The animal, which normally ranges if waters from Greenland to North Carolina, has pox marks over much of its black body, an indication of a virus. It also has respiratory congestion.

Mr. Schofield, who drove to Assateague yesterday to oversee moving the whale to the aquarium, was up most of the night supervising the animal's care.

Pilot whales routinely strand, or become beached, in large numbers along Cape Cod, Mass. Highly social animals, they can be found in groups of 100 or more off the mid-Atlantic coast, but they rarely strand in large numbers there.

Yesterday's stranding was typical, Mr. Schofield said. "It's probably a pretty common scenario for an animal of this age."

The whale was found in shallow water yesterday by park rangers at Assateague. As the tide ran out and the animal became stranded on the sand, rangers and volunteers among the gathering spectators tried to keep its skin wet. They covered the whale with a sheet and shaded it with a tarp.

The aquarium, which participates in a marine mammal stranding network, was notified by telephone. The rescue effort eventually involved the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the Coast Guard.

The whale was taken by truck to NASA's Wallops Island airstrip near Chincoteague, Va., where it was picked up by a Coast Guard HC-130 turboprop cargo plane.

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

The whale arrived by truck at the loading dock of the Marine Mammal Pavilion on Pier 4 at 4:35 p.m.

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

The isolation 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 snout.

But the whale tired in a few minutes and became still.

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