Inky to pause in Florida before swimming free

May 04, 1994|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Sun Staff Writer

The National Aquarium is planning a Florida vacation for its rescued and rehabilitated pygmy sperm whale, including a stay of several weeks at a Marineland park in St. Augustine, before the animal is freed in the Atlantic Ocean.

Depending on results from a final series of blood tests and the availability of a Navy plane and crew, the whale nicknamed "Inky" is expected to end her five-month stay in the aquarium's marine animal hospital and leave Baltimore this week, her human caretakers said yesterday.

"This is simply a time for her to readjust to outdoor conditions and rest from her voyage by plane to the facility," aquarium veterinarian Brent Whitaker said of the Marineland arrangements.

"It gives us a last chance to look at her . . . and assure that she is able to meet the challenges that will exist in the wild."

Dr. Whitaker acknowledged that there was "always that temptation" to keep the young whale -- a deep-ocean species rarely seen in captivity, and the first with serious ailments to have been rehabilitated after stranding.

"There would be so much to learn, having a whale available like this. But that's not why we're here," Dr. Whitaker said, explaining that the marine animal stranding program was designed for rescue, rehabilitation and -- if the animal's condition allows -- return to the wild.

Inky (members of the species excrete an inky substance when excited or frightened) washed up on a New Jersey beach at Thanksgiving, suffering from infections and a blockage of her digestive system by what was found to be plastic debris she had swallowed in the ocean.

"It's almost as if it ate a small trash bag containing these items," Dr. Whitaker said of the debris -- including part of a Mylar balloon, a cigarette box-shaped plastic wrapper and a piece of a heavy plastic bag.

Dr. Whitaker said he and others involved in Inky's treatment -- including volunteers who accounted for some 40,000 hours of help -- can only hope that freeing her "is the most humane thing to do, and that the animal will benefit from our actions."

They also hope, he said, that the public "will become more conscious about how we treat the environment -- know that trash, whether it's dumped into a storm sewer or off the side of a boat, can end up in the ocean and the belly of a marine mammal."

At Marineland, Inky will be swimming in an outdoor pool filled with seawater, becoming acclimated to sunlight and fresh air before being freed in the ocean from a Coast Guard vessel -- a radio-beacon tag attached to her small dorsal fin for tracking, and a video "critter-cam" held by temporary suction on her back to give scientists a last look.

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