Sick pygmy whale helped after airlift to aquarium New Jersey doctor paid for flight

May 12, 1993|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Staff Writer

An ailing whale rescued on a Long Island beach was being cared for last night at the National Aquarium's marine mammal hospital after an emergency airlift to Baltimore.

After two days of unsuccessful attempts to arrange military air transportation for the critically ill pygmy sperm whale, the Okeanos Ocean Research Institute Foundation received a call from a veterinarian- pilot offering to fly the animal here.

Dr. Jacqueline Perkins, 50, of Fairlawn, N.J., said she had purchased a "little Cessna" a week ago, intending to start an animal-flight business for dogs, cats and other small critters called "Vetinair." She made the offer after hearing a television account of the transportation dilemma of the "baby" whale.

When Dr. Perkins found out that the "baby" was a thrashing several hundred pounds, she decided to find a larger airplane and hired the services of Aerotaxi in New Castle, Del., at a cost to her of about $1,250.

"What the hell," she said last night. "I knew that [Okeanos] couldn't pay for it."

The whale arrived in mid-afternoon aboard a twin-engine Beech-18 plane at Baltimore-Washington International Airport's Signature Flight Support terminal. Signature's handling fees were waived, as were the State Aviation Administration landing fees.

The creature -- coated with a protective layer of zinc oxide and kept moist with ice and wet towels -- was in a cushioned stretcher.

Aquarium mammalogist David Schofield said the male whale was moved to a bed of supportive foam in a rectangular carrier and sprayed with icy water during a truck ride to the Marine Mammal Pavilion at the Inner Harbor.

At the side of the aquarium hospital's spacious pool, veterinary technicians drew blood samples from the ventral side of its tail fluke and took a "blowhole culture" to determine whether the creature was afflicted with parasites in its air sinuses or respiratory system.

A sample taken by suction from the stomach showed one medical problem immediately -- roundworms, Mr. Schofield said.

Then the animal, weighing in officially at 400 pounds, was lowered gently by a crane into shallow water at the bottom of the 12-foot-deep isolation pool, where Mr. Schofield and Gene Taylor, a volunteer in the aquarium's marine animal rescue program, "walked" it around the new home.

"At first he was very disoriented," Mr. Schofield said of his 7 1/2 -foot-long patient. "He kind of listed to one side a couple of times and bumped into the wall. We guided it around the pool. In a couple of minutes, he seemed to get his bearings. He righted himself."

Mr. Schofield found a hopeful sign. The whale had "a strong fluke stroke," he said as he watched the creature swim slowly in a tight circle near the edge of the pool.

"It looks like a toy whale," said aquarium spokeswoman Vicki Aversa.

Two other volunteers in the 72-member stranding program, Gordon Lord and Judy Gresser, took notes on the whale's behavior -- beginning the group's round-the-clock observation as the animal gets accustomed to its new surroundings.

The whale -- believed to be 3 to 4 years old, based on its size -- was found stranded Sunday morning by a jogger on Lido Beach, about 12 miles east of Brooklyn, N.Y.

The beaching of a whale is a rarity on Long Island, where institute workers more often tend to sickly seals.

A team from Okeanos drove the whale to the foundation's facilities at East Hampton near the eastern end of Long Island, where initial tests indicated it had a heavy parasitic infection, and a very low white blood cell count. Mr. Schofield said test results over the next few days will help make a more precise diagnosis.

While the aquarium's primary goal is to save the whale, in hopes of returning it to the sea, its presence will add to knowledge about the rarely seen, deepwater species that is in the same family as the large sperm whale and the smaller dwarf pygmy sperm whale.

From his vantage point above the pool, Mr. Schofield pointed out the vestigial gill markings -- lines on the sides of the whale's head that resemble fishy gill slits -- which are a characteristic of the smaller sperm whales. He also noted its "very sharklike rostrum" -- the triangular "nose" end of the animal that some scientists consider an evolutionary development giving the smaller whales an advantage in the hostile ocean depths.

The whale is the second to be treated in the aquarium hospital. A baby pilot whale rescued early last summer from a beach near Chincoteague, Va., died Sept. 1 from respiratory and viral infections.

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