Inky flown to Florida, freedom

May 05, 1994|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Sun Staff Writer

With the sirens and flashing lights of a police motorcycle escort, Inky the whale left Baltimore at sunrise today -- bound for Florida and freedom after a nearly 5 1/2 -month stay in the National Aquarium's marine animal hospital.

Found stranded Thanksgiving night on the New Jersey coast, the female pygmy sperm whale will become the first of her species to be rescued critically ill, nursed back to health and returned to the wild.

"She was near death," said Dr. Joe Geraci, a consulting veterinarian who specializes in marine mammals and who assisted in the whale's care.

"It's rare to be in a group that has been able to devote so much time and effort to an animal," Dr. Geraci said, pointing out not only the work of the aquarium staff but of the volunteers who donated an estimated 40,000 hours of free labor to Inky's care.

No detail seemed too small for the task force of some two dozen people who assembled shortly before 3 a.m. for the delicate job of packing up a whale for an airplane ride. They loaded equipment and suitcases into trucks, drained most of the water from the aquarium hospital's 100,000-gallon quarantine pool and carefully moved the patient into a custom-fitted canvas sling.

Judy Gresser, one of three volunteers flying to Florida with Inky and aquarium specialists on a U.S. Navy plane, remembered to pack the young whale's toys -- a basketball the whale often nuzzled in the pool, a small football and two plastic rings.

Even the water was packed -- hundreds of gallons of hospital pool seawater that was picked up in a tanker truck by BWI Airport firefighters. The water was transferred to a special whale carrier on the U.S. Navy cargo plane flying Inky to St. Augustine.

Inky -- named for her species' behavior of excreting inky matter when excited or frightened -- had been flown to Baltimore by a Coast Guard helicopter Nov. 26 and treated over the ensuing months for respiratory, parasitic and fungal infections, dehydration and gastrointestinal distress.

Beginning in mid-December, veterinarians took advantage of modern medical technology to find and treat what turned out to be the whale's primary problem -- stomach blockage from plastic trash she had swallowed in the ocean.

Using an endoscope -- a tube with a miniature TV camera -- specialists found and removed over a period of several weeks a large piece of a Mylar balloon and other pieces of clear plastic and dark plastic garbage bags from the animal.

The results were remarkable. Inky's weight increased from her 207 pounds in November to a seemingly robust 323 at her final examination Monday, reflecting an increase in both appetite and activity. Periodically, live fish were put in the pool to determine Inky's ability to track and capture prey -- and she chased and ate the fish.

Aquarium officials said they have not figured out how many thousands of dollars it cost to save Inky, but maintain that it was more than repaid by the opportunity for scientific research on a species rarely seen in captivity and to educate the public about environmental concerns.

Inky became a symbol of the dangers of ocean pollution -- a message the aquarium staff hopes to convey to visitors sometime in the future through a documentary video telling the whale's story.

"She's a lesson in what we shouldn't be doing," Dr. Geraci said. "Animals like her have a knack for eating plastic and other debris. Most of them are found on the beach dead."

Inky and her helpers flew out of BWI at 7:10 a.m., and were expected to arrive this afternoon at Marineland park in St. Augustine. Plans call for the whale to be observed there for a few weeks, acclimating to fresh air and sunshine in an outdoor pool before she is taken off the coast and released in the Atlantic from a Coast Guard boat.

Dr. Geraci said scientists hope to follow her for several days with the help of a small radio transmitter attached to the dorsal fin, observing the whale when she surfaces after feeding dives -- and hoping to intervene if she seems unable to adapt to her ocean home.

"If she remains on the surface, swimming in a tight pattern and giving no indication of diving," Dr. Geraci said, "we will attempt to rescue her."

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