After nearly two months of intensive veterinary care, a young pilot whale rescued from a beach near Chincoteague, Va., died yesterday morning at Baltimore's National Aquarium.
Two veterinarians and three volunteers were in the "hospital" pool, trying to comfort the whale as it went into convulsions and died, said Brent Whitaker, the aquarium's director of animal health.
Since its arrival July 7, apparently suffering from respiratory and viral infections, the whale had been under constant care by the veterinary staff and many of the aquarium's approximately 50 volunteers who are trained to work with stranded marine mammals.
It had grown by nearly a foot and several pounds from its 7-foot length and 365-pound weight at arrival, and at times the staff members hoping for the whale's recovery had been cautiously optimistic. But for the past week and a half, the whale's condition had been markedly deteriorating, Dr. Whitaker said.
"We're not quite sure at this point everything that was wrong with the animal," he said after completion of an extensive necrop
sy at the animal pathology laboratory of the University of Maryland at College Park. Numerous tissue samples were taken for further study.
The pilot whale -- believed to be about 18 months old, and perhaps not fully weaned from its mother when it was found on the beach -- was the first stranded marine mammal brought to the aquarium hospital facility, which was designed to deal with such emergencies.
It had been fed through a tube five times a day, monitored through frequent testing and examination of blood samples, and treated for a variety of problems -- all the while growing accustomed to the people entrusted with its care.
Dr. Whitaker said it appeared that the animal, having lost its mother, "imprinted on these people. It's a very social animal. It needed to have a mother figure. It would play with the people."
At feeding time, the whale would swim over to the helpers and freely swallow the feeding tube. It only had to be held still when blood samples were taken -- a procedure so frequent that "it was nothing new to the animal, it was not scary," Dr. Whitaker said.
The psychological bonding between the whale and its keepers was not initially intended, but became a necessity because of the animal's needs.
"We try to maintain distance, except in a situation like this, with a very young animal, a social animal that doesn't have any other of its species to be with," Dr. Whitaker said. "So we allowed it to imprint on people to make it more comfortable."
Dr. Whitaker said the cost of the animal's care had not yet been calculated, but he noted that much of the burden was eased by the work of the volunteers and initial help from the U.S. Coast Guard, which flew the animal from Virginia to Baltimore-Washington International Airport as part of a training mission.
"We couldn't have [otherwise] gotten that animal here so quick to give it the best chance it had," he said. "We can't thank people enough for everything they've done."
Dr. Whitaker said the experience will prove valuable in the long run in expanding knowledge on whale diseases and their treatment, in finding "the limitations of our facility," and helping improve volunteer training.