Whale 'Inky' to be freed off Florida coast today jTC

May 31, 1994|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Sun Staff Writer

ST. AUGUSTINE, FLA. -- A group of National Aquarium volunteers who donated six months of their time to help nurse a sick pygmy sperm whale back to health were preparing last night to wave their farewell.

Near sunrise today, weather permitting, the volunteers and aquarium officials will free the young female whale, nicknamed "Inky," off the Florida coast -- their goal since the creature was found stranded and near death Thanksgiving Day on the New Jersey shore.

"It's hard to believe, after six months -- after tomorrow -- it's bye-bye," said Judy Gresser, 30, a between-jobs medical technician who flew here with Inky May 5, leaving behind her understanding husband, Towson physician Lee Gresser.

Others used vacation time from their jobs to follow the whale from the aquarium's marine animal hospital to its interim quarters in a small pool at the Marineland park south of St. Augustine. "I have a girlfriend who thinks it's insanity -- a lot of people," said Gene Taylor of Severna Park, who took vacation time from his full-time job as the aquarium's safety coordinator to help tend Inky.

The volunteers -- who also include Cheri Jarrell, Robert Kummerer and Brandi Sima -- took turns in the round-the-clock routine of watching Inky in her outdoor pool, learning to ignore attacks by ferocious Florida mosquitoes and "green-head" flies.

Ms. Sima returned after two weeks to her job at a Baltimore veterinarian's office. Ms. Jarrell, a Fort Meade electrical engineer, and Mr. Kummerer, a scientific programmer for Hughes ST Systems Corp., extended their vacations as Inky's stay here proved longer than anticipated.

"I told my superiors I'd need two weeks," said Mr. Kummerer, 37, of Jessup. "And when it stretched to three weeks, they approved that, and then four weeks."

Ms. Jarrell, 34, from the Hanover section of Anne Arundel County, said she found satisfaction in seeing Inky's gradual recovery from a variety of life-threatening ailments after veterinarians removed a stomach blockage of plastic trash she had swallowed at sea.

The group was invited from among dozens of other volunteers to accompany Inky to Florida because Inky was familiar with them. But all felt yesterday that it was not so much the whale's recognizing them, as their own familiarity with the animal's behavior from the months of work that brought them here. Inky will not be going home alone. A second female pygmy sperm whale about the same 325-pound size was rescued in Florida in April and cured of a slight infection, and has been swimming in an adjacent pool at Marineland. The wide-eyed whale was nicknamed "Blinky."

Plans call for the whales to be released together off the coast of Cape Canaveral from a pair of boats provided by federal agencies.

"It's an exhilarating feeling to release a whale," said Joanne Whaley, Marineland curator and veterinary director, who was awaiting last night the arrival of yet another whale of the same species found beached with a dead calf at Fort Pierce, Fla.

Unfortunately, marine experts say, few beached whales survive -- and as far as they know, none as sick as Inky has been healed by human effort.

Mr. Taylor was thinking yesterday about everyone who played a role in saving Inky -- from the people who found her Thanksgiving Day and kept her blowhole above the water on the Jersey shore to the veterinary specialists who donated their services and military crews that flew her to Baltimore and Florida.

"Our purpose was to rehabilitate her to the point where she had a second chance at a healthy life," said Mr. Taylor, 30, "I guess we can't hope for much more than that."

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