J.J. Grows Up

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

Ann Bowles, senior researcher Hubbs/Sea World Research Institute, has studied the whale's vocalizations and response to whale sounds played inside her tank. It is hoped that J.J. will know the meaning of such sounds when she hears them in the wild.

One of the unknowns about J.J.'s return to the ocean is how she will react to killer whales. There have been several instances of killer whales attacking gray whales off the California coast.

This much is known: when the gate between J.J.'s tank and that of Sea World's killer whales was opened, J.J. became agitated as if she sensed danger. Caretakers took that as a good sign.

Weather and sea conditions willing, J.J. will be lifted from her pool on the morning of March 26 in a specially fitted 32-foot stretcher hoisted by a 20-ton cargo boom. She will be eased into a container that is padded with foam to make a comfy, snug-fitting nest.

(An hourlong dry run several weeks ago was considered a success, with J.J. showing no signs of agitation or distress).

The container, set on a flatbed truck, will be open to the sky to provide oxygen. J.J. will be kept wet by hoses and misters. Her veterinarian and caregivers will be close at hand--ready to halt the operation if she shows signs of distress.

A San Diego Police Department escort will guide the truck to the 32nd Street Naval Station.

Once on the base, a crane used to put heavy equipment and armaments aboard warships will be used to lift J.J. from the container and onto the deck of the 180-foot Coast Guard buoy tender Conifer.

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A Coast Guard helicopter and a Sea World single-engine plane will have scouted the waters off San Diego's Point Loma for any whale pods traveling nearby. The goal is to lower J.J. near a pod in hopes that she simply slides into the group.

The Conifer crew has experience moving buoys and concrete sinkers that are larger and heavier than J.J. Buoys and concrete sinkers, however, do not breathe and cannot thrash, and therein lies one of the uncertainties of the venture.

Once J.J. is aboard the Conifer, the decision on whether to continue or abort the operation lies with the ship's captain. If he feels the mammoth animal poses a risk to the crew or ship or if the sea starts to swell or roll, the operation will be scrubbed for another day, with J.J. taken back to Sea World.

Sea World officials hope to lower J.J. into the water about five miles off Point Loma, in the middle of an aquatic superhighway for migrating whales. From start to finish, the operation should take about five hours, researchers say.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has announced that it plans to invoke a no-fly zone near J.J. to prevent her from becoming unnerved by television news helicopters or pleasure boats.

Under federal anti-harassment laws, helicopters must stay 1,000 feet above ocean-bound whales and boats must remain 100 yards away. A Fisheries Service enforcement officer plans to join a Sea World news conference today to warn about heavy fines for violators.

Jim Sumich, professor and whale expert at the Grossmont College in El Cajon, said he believes the biggest danger to J.J. will come from boaters who may want to follow her.

"I just hope people will leave her alone," he said. "She knows nothing of the ocean, she's going to make mistakes and maybe go the wrong way. She needs a wide berth."

Although they travel in pods, gray whales are not particularly social animals. Whale researchers say it is preferable that J.J. join a pod.

"We hope she'll team up with these others and they'll be her mentors and show her the ropes of living in the wild," Robinson said. "It'll let us sleep better the first few nights knowing there are four to five others with her."

To allow her movements to be tracked, researchers will equip J.J.'s back with four transmitters. The transmitters will collect information on her location as well as her dive depth and duration.

The transmitters will be uplinked to a satellite whenever J.J. surfaces. Ideally, the transmitters should last 18 months and range as far as Alaska. Information on J.J.'s location and behavior will be posted on Sea World's Web site: www.jj.seaworld.org

One thing that tracking J.J. will provide for scientists is an indication of the relative importance of maternal nurturing vs. instinctual information.

"We're thinking now that at birth a lot of the information has already been downloaded into the whale's internal computer," Heyning said.

In 1972, Sea World released a young gray whale named Gigi (for Gray Girl) after having kept her in captivity for research purposes for a year. She had been captured in Scammon's Lagoon in Baja California.

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But Gigi--unlike J.J.--was healthy when she came to Sea World and thus any comparison with J.J. is a stretch. A transmitter was attached to Gigi but the last signals were heard only weeks after her release.

To this day, Sea World researchers are unsure whether the silence of Gigi's transmitter means that the animal was unable to readjust to the ocean and died or whether the transmitter malfunctioned.

At Sea World, where J.J. has been nursed, caressed, waited on, examined, fed and cared for continuously since her perilous arrival, the prospect of her imminent departure is tinged with sadness.

"I'll miss her," said animal care specialist Keith Yip. "I'm sorry to see her go. We spent a lot of long days and sleeplessness nights with her."

"Some people have suggested it'll be like watching your child go off to school for the first time," said veterinarian Thomas Reidarson. "It's not. Your children come home again."

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