Inky swims to freedom off Florida

June 01, 1994|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Sun Staff Writer

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- With high hopes for her future, marine scientists returned Inky the whale to her Atlantic Ocean home yesterday -- after her recovery from an overdose of pollution.

The well-traveled whale, rescued from a New Jersey beach on Thanksgiving and nursed back to health in a five-month stay at Baltimore's National Aquarium, was taken into deep water about 35 miles east of Cape Canaveral by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration vessel and given her freedom.

Inky immediately dispelled the fears of aquarium officials that she would be slow to adapt and simply swim around in circles waiting for a food handout.

"She just took right off," said aquarium veterinarian Brent Whitaker after Inky nosed into the ocean about 10:35 a.m. -- carrying a small radio transmitter and a microcomputer so marine experts can keep track of her over the next few days.

The pygmy sperm whale's last trip with human caretakers began about 3 a.m. at the Marineland park south of St. Augustine where she and another stranded female of her species, nicknamed Blinky, had occupied round holding pools about 20 feet apart.

Inky was carried in a custom-fitted canvas sling by a backhoe and loaded onto a foam bed in a borrowed refrigerated seafood company truck, while Blinky was moved in like fashion into a Marineland truck for a predawn, 112-mile ride to Cape Canaveral under police escort.

Blinky, having overcome a small infection at Marineland, was transferred to the Coast Guard Cutter Drummond, while Inky was taken aboard the Relentless -- a 226-foot former Navy submarine surveillance vessel making its maiden mission for NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Inky survived longer in captivity than any other seriously ill pygmy sperm whale, and Dr. Joseph H. Geraci, a consulting veterinarian and marine mammal expert, said she enabled scientists to expand their knowledge of the species' physiology and behavior, including the discovery that it emits the highest-frequency sonar-like sound of any whale.

Even in being released, Inky will continue to provide information -- until saltwater exposure disintegrates the bolts attaching the radio transmitter and microcomputer to the whale's small dorsal fin.

Dr. Geraci said the tiny equipment will tell scientists remaining on NOAA's Relentless "what she's doing out there."

The sky was a pale blue, and the ocean a deep blue as the two ships carrying whales arrived at the release point and shut down engines about 10:20 a.m. Blinky, unencumbered by equipment, was lowered in a sling from the side of the cutter and vanished in the sea swells.

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