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Newport's Whale Dies at Sea World

July 26, 1993|CATHERINE GEWERTZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rocky, the ailing young whale that drew sympathy and help from a crowd of beach-goers after washing ashore Saturday at Newport Beach, died Sunday morning at Sea World in San Diego despite a nightlong struggle by veterinarians to save its life.

A team of experts worked in shifts through the night, monitoring the minke whale's breathing and pulse and keeping it upright in a shallow holding tank so it could breathe through its blowhole, said Tom Goff, Sea World's mammal curator.

But about 8:15 a.m., showing no signs of pain, the whale stopped breathing and its heartbeat ceased, Goff said.

"It's so sad. I really hoped he would make it," said Don Crawford, 29, a Newport Beach radio station manager who was among the first to find the whale just after dawn Saturday at 56th Street.

Crawford named the 13 1/2-foot, 1,338-pound male whale "Rocky" because it was found banging into the rocks of a jetty. Crawford and a few lifeguards pushed it out into the ocean, but when it washed ashore again, they spent nearly eight hours petting and talking to the whale and draping wet cloths on it to keep its skin moist.

"We tried to do everything we possibly could as human beings and then, after all we did, we had to rely on modern medicine to do what it could, I guess to no avail," Crawford said.

Sea World workers Sunday called scientists from various agencies, institutes and museums to invite them to a necropsy scheduled for today. It is common to invite researchers to participate in post-mortem analysis when the findings could be scientifically valuable, Goff said.

Sea World workers, summoned to the beach by concerned citizens, came to fetch Rocky on Saturday afternoon. They rolled the whale into a huge sling and hoisted it onto a flatbed truck. A team of veterinarians and other animal experts began treating it as soon as it was unloaded at the San Diego amusement park about 5 p.m., Goff said.

The team found Rocky underweight, dehydrated and malnourished, Goff said. A minke whale such as Rocky, about four or five months old, should weigh about a ton, Goff said, but Rocky was more than 600 pounds underweight. The team fed it herring by mouth, and administered water and electrolytes--a mixture akin to Gatorade, Goff said--through a tube into its stomach to restore its fluid and chemical balance.

The whale received injections of anti-inflammatory drugs because it had received cuts and bruises from the rocks, and it also was given shots of antibiotics because tests showed it had a bacterial infection of unknown origin, Goff said.

Parasites attached to the whale's skin indicated that it had been swimming or floating very slowly in the water--a sign of illness--for some time before washing ashore, Goff said. The Sea World team kept the blue-gray animal in about three feet of water with a foam pad under its white belly to keep it upright because it had been listing to the side, Goff said.

"We were looking for signs that he was improving, but unfortunately, we didn't see that," Goff said. "Early this morning, we saw signs he was becoming weaker."

The whale's breathing grew more shallow and rapid, then stopped altogether.

The animal's body was being refrigerated until the necropsy, Goff said. Afterward, its body parts will be distributed to research and educational facilities that have permission from the National Marine Fisheries Service to receive and use such tissues, Goff said.

Scientists are interested in Rocky's case because it is unusual for a whale to be alive when it is beached. It is also unusual, they said, to find a beached minke, one of the smaller species of baleen whales. Gray whales and blue whales are larger, better-known baleen species, Goff said.

Baleen whales are toothless "filter feeders" that swim through the water with their mouths open, taking in plankton, smelt and other small fish, then squirting out the water, Goff said. They are found in the open ocean, in temperate seas around the world, Goff said.

Crawford, one of Rocky's early rescuers, said Rocky's death touched him because he had developed an affection for the animal. At one time an aspiring veterinarian, Crawford loves animals but has no pets because his apartment complex doesn't allow them.

"There he was, you know, you just knew the guy was suffering, that he wanted to be out there in the water," Crawford said. "You wanted to put your heart out to him and help any way you could.

"So I befriended this whale. He was sort of like a pet. Well, I guess I had a pet for six or seven hours."

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