Very ill whale needs flight to Baltimore Aquarium might be able to save it

May 11, 1993|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Staff Writer

Hopes for the survival of a critically ill whale rescued from a Long Island beach appeared to hinge yesterday on a logistical problem -- how to get the animal to Baltimore's National Aquarium, the closest available marine mammal hospital.

Specialists with the Okeanos Ocean Research Institute Foundation on Long Island and the aquarium in Baltimore said National Guard and Coast Guard aircraft relied on in the past as ambulances for stranded marine mammals were not available, and they doubted that the animal could survive an eight-hour drive in a truck.

The young male pygmy sperm whale -- believed to be 3 to 4 years old, based on its 7 1/2 -foot length and 300-pound weight -- was found stranded Sunday morning by a jogger on Lido Beach, about 12 miles east of Brooklyn, N.Y.

A team from Okeanos drove the whale to the foundation's facilities at East Hampton near the eastern end of Long Island. Initial tests indicated the whale had a heavy parasitic infection, and a very low white blood cell count. Okeanos sea stranding biologist Caren E. Carminati said an older pygmy sperm whale had been found dead a week earlier on a Long Island beach about 30 miles east of Lido Beach. Pygmy sperm whales, she said, are rarely seen in the ocean and "the most we know about them is from strandings." The dead whale was found to have "a humongous parasite load" throughout its body, but final pathology reports were awaited, she said.

Ms. Carminati said the whale found Sunday is being cared for in a small holding tank, and after receiving initial feedings through a tube has been able to eat squid offered to it by hand. But it remains critically ill, in need of a larger tank and specialized care that is available at only a handful of marine institutions along the East Coast.

The problem, she said, is that the closest sites are under repair or have no tank available for a whale emergency -- except for the aquarium in Baltimore, with its state-of-the-art marine mammal hospital and 100,000-gallon isolation pool.

But Coast Guard and National Guard units from New York to Virginia -- which have incorporated marine mammal flights into scheduled training missions in the past -- could not accommodate appeals for help yesterday, further diminishing the whale's chances for survival.

Ms. Carminati said the case appeared hopeless "unless somebody has a 30-foot tank, 8 feet deep, that they want to plop in our backyard."

National Aquarium mammalogist David Schofield said, "We're looking for anybody who can airlift this animal down here. We can't find anybody."

The National Aquarium hospital has tended a stranded pilot whale, a sea turtle and four seals since the marine mammal pavilion's opening in late 1990 -- the latest a baby seal picked up at Ocean City in April that remains under treatment for lung worms. Two of the seals were rehabilitated -- one of them moved to another marine facility, and the other released off the Massachusetts coast. But a seal suffering from gunshot wounds was euthanized last month because of seizures that resulted from an irreversible wound to the brain, Mr. Schofield said.

The young pilot whale, rescued early last summer from a beach near Chincoteague, Va., died at the aquarium hospital Sept. 1 from respiratory and viral infections.

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