Whale's stomach tells tale of pollution

January 07, 1994|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Staff Writer

Veterinarians went fishing yesterday at Baltimore's National Aquarium -- inside the belly of a little whale.

And the plastic trash they caught did not speak well for the habits of the whale's human neighbors.

It was the veterinarians' fifth and most successful fishing expedition inside the young creature, believed to be a pygmy sperm whale, that was found stranded on the New Jersey shore.

In a procedure known as endoscopy, they fed a tube with a tiny video camera into the stomach to find and remove a foot-square piece of a Mylar balloon, a small shredded piece of a dark plastic garbage bag, a clear plastic wrapper slightly smaller than a cigarette pack, and the shredded remains of what looked like a condom.

There was no way to tell how common such digestive obstructionsmay be for whales or dolphins in the deep, although aquarium officials say plastics like balloon bits often show up in sea turtles.

"It says that the ocean is not a safe place," said Dr. Brent R. Whitaker, the aquarium's chief veterinarian. "The animals that come in are a barometer of what is going on in the world."

The female whale, about 6 feet long and a slim 237 pounds,

apparently gobbled up the trash in its deep-water Atlantic Ocean home before it was found stranded on Thanksgiving Day at Great Egg Harbor Inlet, south of Atlantic City.

It was flown the next day to the aquarium by a Coast Guard helicopter, when it was described as "a sick little animal" suffering from internal parasites, dehydration and muscle trauma.

But in treating the whale since then at the aquarium's marine mammal hospital, veterinarians found what they say may have been the main problem underlying the stranding -- a partial blockage in the first of its three stomachs that hold and then break down food.

Earlier endoscopic investigations snagged small bits of plastic trash, including a piece that was sent for analysis to the National Marine Fisheries Service. A marine forensics biologist there identified it as a piece of a Mylar balloon or "similar grade plastic."

But a larger wad appeared to be stuck inside the stomach, unyielding to the tugs of a hook slipped through the endoscopy tube. In their last examination, the veterinary staff and volunteers put a barium solution through the tube and obtained radioscopic images showing the foreign matter as a large shadowy mass.

The plastic obstruction appeared to be the reason for the whale's limited appetite as it gobbled only about half the 25 to 30 pounds of squid that would make up a normal daily diet for it to put on weight.

"We can't get all of it out. It seems to adhere. It's stuck," Dr. Whitaker said yesterday as staff members and volunteers prepared to remove the whale from its hospital isolation pool -- a task that somewhat resembled making an open-field football tackle, but in water 18 feet deep.

The whale dodged and dived under, around and through a team of five swimmers led by mammalogist David Schofield, coordinator of the aquarium's marine animal rescue program.

After about 10 minutes, three of the swimmers managed to catch the whale in a group hug and bring it to the edge of a pool.

It was eased into a canvas sling, lifted from the water by a pulley system and placed gently on a bed of wet foam where some of the dozen staff members and volunteers patted the animal's delicate skin and kept it moist with a constant spray of water.

Mr. Schofield put a plastic hose connection in the whale's mouth and held it steady while Dr. Michael Wise, a Montgomery County veterinary consultant specializing in endoscopy, fed the camera-laden tube through it and into the esophagus and stomach.

And everyone watched the video images on the endoscopy equipment's color TV monitor that looked like a scene in the science fiction movie, "Fantastic Voyage," depicting a voyage through the human body.

The procedure was repeated nearly a half-dozen times as Dr. Wise, volunteering his services, hooked and pulled out the debris and bits of undigested squid caught in it.

The biggest piece -- the reluctant balloon fragment that unwrinkled to a square foot -- emerged to cheers.

And the whale? It breathed heavily, flinched a few times, but for the most part lay quietly on the wet foam, perhaps under the influence of its 5 milligram shot of Valium. Finally, it was put back in the water. It ate about 2 pounds of squid offered by its custodians and nuzzled a floating basketball.

Some day, aquarium officials said, it may even be going home.

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