Young porpoise set free off Massachusetts coast

Animal rehabilitated by aquarium rescue team has satellite tag on fin

June 19, 1999|By Sarah Pekkanen | Sarah Pekkanen,SUN STAFF

GLOUCESTER, MASS. -- Five months ago, the baby harbor porpoise's future was bleak. Separated from his mother, emaciated and near death, the young porpoise was about to be euthanized on the Cape Cod, Mass., coast where he had been stranded.

At the last minute, a telephone rang at the National Aquarium: Could experts in Baltimore help the animal?

The answer appeared to be a resounding "yes" yesterday morning, as a rehabilitation team of aquarium staff and volunteers released the newly plump, vigorously wiggling porpoise back into the Atlantic Ocean.

"That was awesome," said Jennie Sheesley, an aquarium volunteer who donned a wet suit and eased the animal into the 60-degree water. She and David Schofield, coordinator of the aquarium's marine animal rescue program, exchanged grins and high-fives as the porpoise propelled itself away from the Coast Guard boat.

But even as they celebrated, the aquarium staff harbored private concerns. Marine mammal experts are uncertain why the gray porpoise -- which is a smaller and less social breed than most dolphins -- washed ashore. Deep gashes near its tail indicate it may have become entangled in a fisherman's net.

Another theory is that the young male may have lost its mother before weaning was complete, and had trouble catching fish on its own. Harbor porpoises usually wean at about 8 to 12 months, and aquarium officials believe the animal was roughly 8 months old when it was stranded.

Brent Whitaker, the aquarium's head veterinarian, noted that the porpoise chased and ate live fish during its rehabilitation in Baltimore. "That's a good sign," he said.

Still, he said, he would not have felt comfortable releasing the animal were it not for the custom-made satellite tag attached to its dorsal fin.

For the next two months, its signals will provide clues about the animal's reintroduction to the wild. By monitoring depths of feeding dives, migration patterns and breathing habits, aquarium officials will, for the first time, be able to determine whether such young animals are good candidates for release into the wild.

Though the cost of saving the porpoise ran into the tens of thousands of dollars, the around-the-clock efforts of dozens of volunteers helped keep the price from soaring higher.

Schofield also pointed out that the contribution the baby porpoise will make to science is invaluable.

Before his release, the porpoise was held in a 100,000-gallon quarantine pool one floor down from aquarium's permanent collection of trained bottlenose dolphins.

A week ago, he was flown by Navy cargo plane to the Mystic, Conn., aquarium. He was held there until Coast Guard transportation to a point seven miles off the coast of Gloucester could be arranged.

After the porpoise sped away from the boat yesterday, Schofield and Whitaker stood staring at the calm blue water, hoping for a glimpse of him surfacing. But the animal disappeared from view.

"They're like children," Schofield joked. "They don't call; they don't write."

"The porpoise is swimming out there thinking, `It keeps going! It keeps going!' " Whitaker laughed, referring to the animal's long confinement in the quarantine pool.

The National Aquarium has cared for more than 100 sick and injured whales, dolphins, seals and sea turtles since 1991. About three-quarters of those animals were too ill to be saved.

Among the aquarium's high-profile success stories are Inky, a pygmy sperm whale whose digestive system was damaged by garbage it mistook for food, and Chessie, the much-traveled manatee.

As the Coast Guard boat headed back to shore, Schofield sighed with satisfaction: "Another chapter closed."

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