An ailing newborn baby gray whale, floundering and lost off the coast near Marina del Rey since Friday, was taken from the water Saturday in a dramatic beach rescue that transfixed onlookers and required the strength of two dozen whale experts, lifeguards, LAPD officers and even a few bystanders.
The 13-foot, 8-inch, 1,670-pound whale--thought to be a female--was taken in a large closed truck, complete with a CHP escort, to Sea World of California in San Diego, where it arrived safely about 5:30 p.m.
Bill Winhall, Sea World's assistant curator of mammals, said of the new arrival, "It's weak and dehydrated and we're going to be watching it very closely, feeding it every two hours."
Sea World officials said the animal was swimming on its own, but described it as semiconscious and rated its chances of survival as poor.
"This animal has been through a lot and it's going to take a lot to have it overcome the challenges," said Jim McBain, the facility's chief veterinarian. "Right now, it is so weak you don't get much of a response from it."
In 1971, Sea World took in a 3-month-old whale, cared for her for a year and then released her into the wild. The whale, named Gigi, was periodically seen years later. But McBain said the new arrival is younger and in worse shape than Gigi was.
Since the baby whale was discovered Friday morning beached on the sand about a quarter-mile south of the Venice pier, lifeguards, whale rescuers and other mammal experts have tried in vain to get it back out to sea. They searched, without success, for the baby's mother or another pod of whales making the season's long migration from Alaska to Baja California.
The lost whale disappeared Friday night but was spotted Saturday morning zigzagging from the north to the south jetty of the Marina del Rey channel as spectators watched helplessly.
"It's heartbreaking," said Lynne Kramer. "You just feel like going out there and giving it a big push."
As a federally protected species, whales are supposed to be left alone. Only when they beach themselves do officials intervene.
Although the whale made its way out of the channel by late Saturday morning, the animal simply meandered a few hundred yards offshore, confused and lethargic.
With the whale thought to be getting weaker and weaker and in danger of being hit by a boat, officials devised a plan and received federal approval for a shallow-water rescue.
"We're going to strand it, grab it, and get it onto a flatbed truck," John Heyning, curator of mammals at the Natural History Museum, told reporters shortly after noon.
"We're hoping the animal jumps into our stretcher and goes gladly with it," chuckled Terry Rogaczewski, of the National Marine Fisheries Service, who helped devise the plan. "But we hope we get enough people."
Rescuers began by coaxing the whale toward shore. With two whale rescue boats and the Baywatch Marina del Rey boat hovering nearby, rescuers dove off the boat and splashed water near the whale. "We're just trying to head it toward the beach in a non-dangerous way," said county lifeguard Lt. Mike Cunningham.
When the whale finally got the message and headed toward the beach, about half a mile south of the Venice pier, a half-dozen rescuers and lifeguards swam behind. And other wetsuited and jeans-clad officials came running toward the shoreline with a giant sling attached to two long poles. Nine people hovered over the whale as they gently positioned the animal on the sling. Meanwhile, the flatbed truck was driven to the water's edge and the bed was inclined down to the sand.
But the whale couldn't be budged.
"We need help!" the rescuers shouted. LAPD officers who had been controlling reporters and onlookers ran to the water's edge.
The rescuers pushed and pulled, started and stopped, as the sling was attached to a line from the truck and slowly cranked. The crowd waited for the 15 to 20 minutes it took to transfer the animal onto the inclined bed. Meanwhile, police officers and lifeguards loaded and reloaded buckets of water to douse the slate-gray whale.
When the whale was finally secured on the truck, the crowd hooted and applauded and the truck was driven off across the sand.
The mammal, believed to be no more than four days old, was then placed on sopping-wet foam pads on the wet floor of another truck and covered in wet towels to keep it cool and moist. Its head and tail were cushioned by bright orange slings. It wriggled periodically and flipped its tail up as the truck was closed and secured.
Rima Heifetz Lowe of the Point Mugu Wildlife Center, who had assisted in the rescue, got behind the wheel of the truck and flashed a thumbs-up sign as the crowd of about 100 onlookers on Via Marina cheered. The truck followed a Los Angeles Police Department escort to a nearby gas station where the truck was gassed up and extra buckets of water were filled for the journey to San Diego.
Staff writer Bettina Boxall contributed to this story.