Cured, she takes the plunge Porpoise freed: A porpoise found near death a year ago and nursed to health at the National Aquarium bolts back into the sea.

April 30, 1996|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

A year after she was discovered foundering near death in a tributary of Delaware Bay, a gritty harbor porpoise that was nursed back to health at the National Aquarium in Baltimore was released yesterday 30 miles off the coast of Ocean City.

After the porpoise was gently lowered onto a canopy after her ride out to sea on a Coast Guard vessel, David Schofield, director of the aquarium's Marine Animal Rescue Program, held her in the seawater to acclimate her to the temperature. On a nearby boat, about a dozen members of the MARP stood by in wet suits in case the porpoise showed signs of distress.

But they were not needed. This porpoise was ready to go.

"She started squirming around in there as if she knew she was getting ready to go. It got to the point where I couldn't hold her anymore," Mr. Schofield said.

"She swam to the right toward the stern and then straight out. She never hesitated or looked back."

The last thing he saw was the yellow tag on her dorsal fin, part of a satellite tag that will track the porpoise.

"In six seconds, she was gone," he said.

The porpoise has no name -- just an aquarium number: 9508PP (the letters refer to its species, Phocoena phocoena). The aquarium avoids naming the animals it rescues, because the ultimate aim is to release them in their natural habitats.

"Our goal is to try to keep them wild. We don't want to make them our pets," Mr. Schofield said.

Yesterday marked MARP's 12th successful release of a marine animal. The first came in April 1991, when a harbor seal rescued from coastal Virginia was released.

The harbor porpoise arrived at the National Aquarium on April 1 last year after being found lost and disoriented in brackish water in Dennisville, N.J.

An infant when she was discovered, the porpoise was suffering from pneumonia and parasitic, skin and intestinal infections. She weighed just 50 pounds and was severely emaciated, and had a peculiar head-shaking behavior.

The porpoise could barely swim and had to be kept in shallow water. She had to be tube-fed fish milkshakes, made of herring and an electrolyte solution pureed in a blender.

"Just like the Bass-o-matic" of "Saturday Night Live" fame, Mr. Schofield said.

That's when the 70 MARP volunteers went into action. Altogether, they spent more than 7,000 hours assisting in the rehabilitation of the porpoise, observing it, feeding it and helping with medical procedures such as frequent blood work.

"It's the culmination of a lot of hard work and many volunteer hours, initially around the clock," said Tom Morrow, a MARP volunteer diver who is a Towson criminal defense attorney.

But it's all worthwhile, he said, and a good break from his paid vocation.

"I have a client on death row, so this is a nice change," he said. "It's so diametrically different from the stress and concentration of defending people."

A year after the porpoise's arrival, all the hard work had paid off. She had gained more than 50 pounds, begun swimming vigorously around the aquarium's 98,000-gallon hospital tank and eating live fish. The head-shaking stopped. She was ready for discharge.

About 3 a.m. yesterday, the porpoise was loaded into a water-filled box and held in a canvas sling that had holes for her fins. She left about 3: 20 a.m. in a convoy that included a state police escort and emergency vehicles from the Ocean City and Baltimore-Washington International Airport fire departments.

Lt. George Bopst of the BWI Fire and Rescue service was driving the van carrying the porpoise. That was appropriate, since he drove her on two dry runs around Baltimore and its environs to see how the porpoise, a very high-strung animal, would handle the stress of travel.

"I got to bring her in," said Lieutenant Bopst, who went on the boat to see the release. "I drive charter buses part time, so I'm kind of used to giving people smooth rides. So I just did the same thing for her."

Brandi Sima, who is a veterinary technician at a Jarrettsville animal hospital, worked with the porpoise "pretty much from the day she came in until the day she left."

Yesterday, shortly after 8: 40 a.m., Ms. Sima stood in her wet suit on the support vessel looking across the swells as Mr. Schofield held the porpoise. When the porpoise swam off, there was no whooping or applause from the volunteers.

"She's gone," Ms. Sima said simply as the porpoise disappeared, perhaps to find a pod of other porpoises migrating northward to the Bay of Fundy in Canada.

"It's done," she said.

Pub Date: 4/30/96

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