Rescued pygmy sperm whale 'Inky' is well again and soon will swim free

April 23, 1994|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Sun Staff Writer

The National Aquarium is making preparations to free the young pygmy sperm whale that was rescued Thanksgiving Day on a New Jersey beach, sick from swallowing plastic debris in the Atlantic.

Within a few weeks, aquarium mammalogists and veterinarians are hoping to fly the female whale to Florida on a Navy plane and release her in the ocean -- with a radio transmitter attached to the dorsal fin, and perhaps a "critter-cam" mounted by suction cups on her back.

"Critter-cam" is the brainchild of Greg Marshall, a National Geographic cinemagrapher from Falls Church, Va., who since 1986 has been experimenting with video technology to see the watery world from the viewpoint of its inhabitants -- such as loggerhead turtles, sharks and elephant seals.

The young whale that now appears to be thriving in the aquarium's marine animal hospital will be Mr. Marshall's first, if he can figure out how to keep the camera on its firm, rubbery back.

On a ledge near the bottom of the hospital isolation pool Thursday, Mr. Marshall attached a buoyant, 4-pound, pontoon-shaped object to the whale's back using eight small suction cups on the bottom of a custom-designed camera holder. Barely three seconds after the whale was rolled gently into the water, the contraption intended to simulate "critter cam" in size and weight had fallen off the animal.

"That's what experimentation is for," Mr. Marshall said, ready to go back to the drawing board and try again with the whale next week.

Even if Mr. Marshall succeeds, the video camera will not remain attached to the whale for more than a few hours in the ocean. The suction will deteriorate, and the camera strapped to the mounting device will float to the surface emitting an electronic signal that is to enable researchers to retrieve it.

The videotape inside the camera will, they hope, provide a whale's-eye view of the ocean to a depth of about 600 feet depending on water clarity -- and an interesting addition to the video documentary on the animal's rescue and rehabilitation that the aquarium began shooting this week.

The pygmy sperm whale -- known by the scientific name Kogia breticeps, but called "Inky" by some human admirers for her ability to expel a brown-to-burgundy inky substance when excited or frightened -- may be the first of the species to be rescued from a stranding, rehabilitated and returned to the sea.

That is rare accomplishment with any whale species, according to mammalogist David Schofield, who heads the aquarium's marine animal rescue program. Most whales that beach are too large to handle; many are already dead; and few of those small enough for humans to handle can be cured of their infections and wounds.

In their six months with the whale, aquarium staff members and researchers from across the country have been studying the rarely seen deep-water pygmy species, which Mr. Schofield said is teaching them what whales need to survive in a rehabilitation setting.

Next week, the group plans to make a plaster cast of the whale's small dorsal fin to use in designing a radio tag. Its signal will give researchers a chance to follow the whale's movements and dives so long as the battery lasts.

But there will be no way to tell if the whale encounters the danger that brought her to the aquarium hospital -- human garbage.

In January, veterinarians removed an assortment of plastic debris, including portions of a green trash bag and a Mylar helium balloon, from the whale's digestive tract.

Since then, the 6 1/2 -foot-long animal has regained her appetite and grown from about 200 pounds to nearly 325 at the last weighing a week ago.

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