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Carlsbad Firm Readied Last-Ditch Try to Save Whales

Times Staff Writer

Soviet sailors, Eskimo hunters and American biologists weren’t the only ones who worked overtime to help free the two California grays trapped in the Arctic ice off Point Barrow, Alaska.

In a Carlsbad custom sail and canvas shop, John Ortega and his staff toiled voluntarily until 1 a.m. Wednesday, cutting and sewing together a whale stretcher: a mammoth, 33-foot-long, 22-foot-wide, nylon hammock that might have been used to help the whales escape their icy prison.

The whales were freed Wednesday when Soviet ice-breaking vessels cleared a path for them to the open sea.

Marine experts say the danger to man and beast alike makes the use of the whale stretcher, which would be attached to the whale and then lifted by a helicopter, the least desirable method of rescue.

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Last Friday, oceanographers at the Seattle-based National Marine Mammal Laboratory contacted Sea World about the use and availability of such large whale stretchers. The marine laboratory is the research branch of the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is overseeing the rescue.

Although Sea World has used whale stretchers before to move its marine creatures, including killer whales and dolphins, it has never transported an animal as large as the trapped grey whales, said Dan LeBlanc, a spokesman for the marine park. LeBlanc said an inventory of equipment revealed that Sea World does not have a hammock large enough for the gray whales.

‘Cutting and Sewing’

That’s when Sea World turned to Ortega Canvas & Sail Repair for help.

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“I’ve been working for Sea World the last 10 years,” said Ortega, who has supplied the marine park with many harness-like devices, including stretchers for the park’s whales and dolphins.

“We started cutting and sewing” at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Ortega said. “We stopped around 1 a.m. and have been back at it since 8 this morning,” he said Wednesday. “This thing is just getting bigger and bigger, heavier and heavier. I would say it’s 350 pounds, easy.”

Ortega said a crew of 6 to 14 workers worked continuously to build the ballistic nylon stretcher. The cost of labor and materials--donated by Sea World--was $3,500 to $4,500, Ortega said.

“I’ve been watching the rescue attempts on TV for the last three weeks,” Ortega said. “I feel very fortunate to be called.”

Although rescuers appreciated Ortega’s help, they were hoping that the whales could be saved without the hammock. LeBlanc said the stretcher would be a “last-ditch effort to get them to open water.”

According to LeBlanc, Sea World is the only organization that has had any routine experience moving whales on stretchers.

The rescuers’ hesitancy to use the stretcher device is obvious.

“You have to remember that you’re dealing with a huge, wild animal, working with helicopters, and, to make matters worse, working in extremely difficult weather conditions,” LeBlanc

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said. “That’s a pretty hazardous situation, both for the rescuers as well as the whales.”

Although marine experts at Sea World have used cranes and stretchers to move killer whales weighing up to 7 tons, that is a far cry from moving a much larger gray whale by helicopter over ice to open water.

The two gray whales are estimated to be 27 feet and 33 to 35 feet long, said Marilyn Dahlheim, an oceanographer at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory. Experts believe the smaller whale weighs 8 to 10 tons; the larger one may weigh as much as 14 tons.

“That kind of weight may be beyond the Skycrane’s capacity,” LeBlanc said, referring to the helicopter. “At best, it’ll probably be at the limit.”

LeBlanc said whales in the wild have been transported before, but practically all of those attempts used cranes, not helicopters.

In the early 1970s, Sea World, the U. S. Navy and the UC San Diego Medical School combined to conduct a research project on a captive gray whale. When “Gigi” was freed from captivity, it was about 27 feet long and weighed 7 tons.

“Gigi was the biggest whale we’ve ever handled,” LeBlanc said.

In 1982, Sea World used the stretcher to rescue an ailing gray whale, 20 to 25 feet long, that accidentally drifted into San Diego Bay.

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To use the stretcher, the whales would have to be “immobilized . . . either by drugs or rope or both,” LeBlanc said. Then, the stretcher would be moved underneath the whale before the helicopter hoisted it out of the water and flew it to freedom.


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