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.

NOAA Cmdr. Patrick Ruttan, assistant to the director of Fisheries' Office of Protected Resources, said the Relentless was inactive in Norfolk, Va., with only a few officers overseeing maintenance, when the request came three weeks ago for a ship to assist in Inky's release and subsequent tracking. "There was a requirement to track this whale -- the crux of this whole trip," said Commander Ruttan. "If it was just a release, anyone could have done it."

At a briefing for broadcast and newspaper reporters as the Relentless steamed toward the western edge of the Gulf Stream, the commander said NOAA's cooperation was part of its mandated mission to educate the public on ocean pollution -- like the plastic trash that Inky swallowed and nearly died from in November, emerging as a living symbol of that environmental problem. "The ocean is not an unlimited dumping ground," he said.

With the whale's story being turned into a documentary film intended in large part for young people, Commander Ruttan said, the benefits "will far outweigh the costs so far of getting Inky released."

Aquarium officials said those costs could be close to $500,000 -- most of it in donated services from government agencies and the private sector, but not including some 40,000 hours of labor provided by the dozens of volunteers in its marine animal rescue program.

"There are far worse things on which to spend $500,000," said Dr. Joseph H. Geraci, a consulting veterinarian and marine mammal expert who played a major role in Inky's care and yesterday's release.

"It's not an individual whale," added Dr. Whitaker. "It's a concept that the whole world needs to swallow."

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.

The researchers aboard Relentless made a last check of Inky, then used a crane to swing her sling through an opening on the side of the ship and down to an aquarium crew in a rubber Zodiac boat.

The crew below, directed by aquarium mammalogist and stranding program coordinator David Schofield, pulled out the long metal poles on each side of the sling, tilted Inky's nose toward the water and let her slip slowly into the sea.

The yellow plastic tip of the radio antenna protruding from the dorsal fin could be seen slicing through the water for the first 100 feet.

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