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J.J. Grows Up

California and the West

Animals: Fourteen months after baby gray whale was rescued, scientists prepare to release her and hope that she has the skills to survive.

March 18, 1998|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — When she arrived in San Diego from Marina del Rey, she was comatose, dehydrated, malnourished and severely undersized.

Only round-the-clock emergency care in an aquatic intensive care unit at the Sea World theme park kept the week-old calf from dying.

Now it is 14 months later, and J.J., the orphaned California gray whale, is healthy, robust and about to return to her natural environment. At 30 feet in length and 18,000 pounds, she is considered the largest mammal ever kept in captivity.

If a joint operation planned by Sea World, the Navy and the Coast Guard is successful, she will be lowered back into the Pacific on Thursday of next week to join members of her species on their annual 5,600-mile migration from Baja California to the coast of Alaska.

Other sea mammals--principally sea lions--have been nursed back to health at marine facilities and released. But none was as large as J.J., none had been as near death, none was studied by scientists as closely, and certainly none had captured the public's imagination as strongly.

Beyond being a veterinary medical marvel for her recovery, J.J. has also proved a boon to scientists trying to unlock the secrets of her mysterious species. From J.J.'s blood, they have developed an antibody serum to aid other whales that are found in distress along beaches and coastal shallows.

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But make no mistake: her return to the ocean is highly problematic.

Will she know how to feed from the sea bottom (especially with food sources depleted by El Nino) or has she become dependent on handouts? Will she know instinctively to avoid murderous killer whales? Will she head north to Alaska or get lost and swim aimlessly?

"We understand there are unknowns out there," said Jim Antrim, Sea World's general curator of mammals. "Nobody has ever done this before."

John Heyning, curator of mammals at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, who helped rescue J.J. and has monitored her recovery, gives her "much better than a 50-50 chance of survival."

He added: "You have to remember that when we first spotted her Jan. 10 [1997], she had zero chance. She's as ready to go as she can be."

When Heyning and an ad hoc squad of Los Angeles police officers, lifeguards, whale experts and gung-ho bystanders intervened, the disoriented whale calf had become separated from her mother, was floundering and still had her umbilicus attached.

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At 13 feet, 8 inches, and 1,670 pounds, the week-old whale was so stunted that her ribs and skull were visible beneath her skin. With a CHP escort, she was rushed by truck to Sea World on the night of Jan. 11.

At Sea World, she has slowly been nursed back to health and given a name (after the late Judi Junes, director of operations for the Friends of Sea Lions Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach), and prepared for her return to the ocean.

Adult female gray whales average 46 feet and 70,000 pounds at maturity, and thus keeping J.J. in captivity forever was never an option.

At eight months, she was weaned off a gooey white formula of vitamins and pureed fish. These days she averages 475 pounds of fish a day: white bait, capelin, herring, squid, krill, sardines and small shrimp. Keepers maintain their distance.

"We've wanted to keep her as wild as possible," said senior animal care specialist Kevin Robinson. "We don't want her to be looking around for humans to feed her or pet her."

One promising sign has been J.J.'s temperament: standoffish. Her keepers interpret this as placidity and self-assurance that will serve her well.

She has paid little attention to humans. She has not responded much to the crowds that have pressed against the glass sides of her 1.7-million-gallon pool.

She seemed neither interested nor spooked by a dolphin and two sea lions that were introduced into her solitary pool briefly.

The sea lions--part of an experiment organized by the Moss Landing research facility run by San Jose State--were outfitted with "critter cams." Researchers hope that the sea lions can be trained to swim close to whales in the wild; the film could unlock some of the mysteries of whale behavior.

The sea lions came within a few feet of J.J. without incident. "She definitely knew they were there," Robinson said, "but she didn't seem to care."

With no other gray whales in captivity, researchers have been stumped about the grays, their biology and their physiology. Enter J.J.

"This has truly been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Heyning said. "To get this close to a gray has been a true leap forward in understanding not just grays but other whales."

Veterinarians from UC Davis studied blood samples to gauge how the immune system of grays works. Blood samples were used to develop a whale antibody serum for use on other distressed whales--particularly calves whose immune systems are not yet formed.

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