A leap and a dive - and Inky's on her own

June 08, 1994|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Sun Staff Writer

Inky the whale led researchers on a four-day, 100-mile chase along the Atlantic's Gulf Stream current before vanishing in deep blue water far off the Georgia coast.

The disappearance of the 325-pound, 6 1/2 -foot-long Inky came Saturday morning with the loss of a tracking signal from a radio transmitter that the young female pygmy sperm whale had been wearing on her dorsal fin.

The gear was attached before her release in the Atlantic May 31, about 35 miles east of Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Inky -- found near death at a New Jersey beach Thanksgiving Day with a stomach blockage of swallowed plastic trash and nursed back to health at Baltimore's National Aquarium -- appeared to have adapted well in returning to the ocean, said the scientists who followed her on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ship.

Dr. Joseph R. Geraci, a consulting veterinarian and marine mammal expert who assisted in Inky's care, said she seemed to be diving and feeding normally based on clues from the radio signals.

That suggested a happy ending for the animal, one of a species that can reach 1,200 pounds and 12 feet in length. The whales are more often found dead than alive on Atlantic beaches.

Inky, with the passageway to her four stomachs jammed by an assortment of plastic including part of a Mylar balloon, survived longer in captivity than any beached, ailing pygmy sperm whale and was the sickest to be rehabilitated and returned to sea.

Looking on Inky as a symbol of the problems of ocean dumping and with her story being documented on videotape as an educational tool, NOAA officials outfitted and activated the 226-foot Relentless, a former Navy ship, on three weeks' notice to provide assistance.

The scientists based their assessment of Inky's well-being on radio-signal interruptions that indicated dives lasting as long as 20 minutes.

"She was staying down long enough to hunt and eat over a long period of time, then she would surface for a short period of time -- catching her breath, so to speak," Dr. Geraci said after the Relentless returned to shore at Charleston, S.C.

"She would undergo these long dives, usually in the evening and early morning, which is quite normal behavior for an animal feeding in deep waters. We felt quite comforted by those diving patterns.

"We were pleasantly surprised on Thursday when we actually observed her. We launched a boat and were able to observe her closely, breaching -- in which she would come straight out of the water and slap the water with her side -- and porpoising, coming out of the water in an arch and diving right back in.

"The three people in the boat were able to watch her very closely. She was robust. She would raise her head briefly and observe the people in the raft -- all natural, normal behavior for a healthy animal."

Dr. Geraci said the observation of Inky's breaching, porpoising, diving and feeding was a first for her species in the wild, providing new information about pygmy sperm whales.

Inky headed east-northeast, almost in a straight line following the Gulf Stream and riding in its 3- to 4-knot current.

"She didn't have to swim very hard to make a lot of headway," Dr. Geraci said.

"She was an active animal. She moved some great distances. She jumped out of the water like a playful dolphin."

But Inky's radio signal ended Saturday. Dr. Geraci said the harness holding compact radio and computer gear on the small dorsal fin probably broke away -- as it was designed to do, with magnesium connections that deteriorate in saltwater -- and sank to the bottom.

The microcomputer recording the depth and time of Inky's dives and water temperatures also vanished, probably weighed down by the heavier radio transmitter and harness and sinking to the ocean bottom, Dr. Geraci said.

Eventually, he said, the computer gear with that data should break away from the rest of the pack and float to the surface, and might be found through its own radio signal.

"If all goes well, some aircraft flying overhead will pick up the signal and we'll be able to pluck it out of the water," said Dr. Geraci, a professor specializing in wildlife pathology at the University of Guelph, outside Toronto.

"The Alice in Wonderland ending would have been the transmitter parting on a calm sea, our being able to launch a

small boat to retrieve it and downloading the information right on the ship."

Dr. Geraci said the ship's crew sailed until dark Saturday night in "crisscrossing patterns and grids in every conceivable direction we thought she would be following."

But Inky could not be found in the vastness of the Atlantic about 100 miles off the Georgia coast.

There was trash, however.

"We found out at sea at least two Mylar balloons -- the same kind she had eaten and that brought her ashore in the first place," Dr. Geraci said.

"What a touch of irony," he said.

Aquarium veterinarian Brent Whitaker said they also spotted near the boat a mother dolphin carrying a sheet of clear plastic on her fluke, with her calf following behind and nibbling at it.

"It's no wonder these animals swallow it," he said.

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