Stranded Young Whale Dies Despite Rescue Attempt

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A young beaked whale who stranded herself on the shore near Malibu died late Saturday, despite efforts of marine volunteers who watched over her 24 hours a day, fed and hydrated her through a tube and tried to nurse her back to health.

The whale--named BJ for Bob Janice, the lifeguard who first noticed her--probably died from a kidney infection, said Dr. Richard Evans, medical director of the Friends of the Sea Lion Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, but a final cause of death won’t be known until after today’s necropsy.

Lifeguards spotted the sleek gray mammal Friday after she beached herself at Point Dume County Beach. The battered, dehydrated whale was transported to a marine care center in San Pedro, then to Laguna Beach on a flatbed truck.


The whale, believed to be younger than 18 months--showed signs of recovery Saturday afternoon, sometimes swimming unassisted around a 16-foot pool at the marine center and seeming to regain some of her strength. But the extent of BJ’s distress became evident after her 8:30 p.m. feeding.

She accepted her formula with less thrashing than usual, said volunteer Kim Zagres, a veterinary technician who was watching the juvenile whale. But within 10 minutes she started swimming rapidly, in a “death spiral.” The whale spat up her food and sank to the bottom of the pool.

Unlike previous rests on the bottom, the whale was unable to hover upright this time. She toppled onto her side, prompting volunteers to lift the 10-foot, 800-pound mammal to the surface.

“We knew she was in trouble,” Zagres said.

The volunteers cradled the sick whale in their arms. One of them, Todd Ashker, held BJ’s chest as her body ceased wriggling and slackened. Ashker could feel her heartbeat start to slow, Zagres said.

“She stopped taking breaths,” she said. “And her eyes started to fix, to stop moving. The eyes tell the whole story.” Around 9 p.m., the young whale died in the volunteers’ arms.

An air of mourning could be felt at the marine mammal center Sunday, as visibly drained volunteers turned away visitors hoping to glimpse the ailing whale and scrubbed out the pool that had housed her.


“It is a hard thing,” said Michele Hunter, assistant director of Friends of the Sea Lion, a nonprofit group that typically cares for sea lions and seals. “You go into this knowing that when a cetacean comes onto the beach, there is something very wrong with them. There’s a less than 1% survival rate. Still, you get your hopes up that this [whale] is the 1% that will survive.”

The death should offer scientists a rare chance to learn more about beaked whales--deep-diving mammals who steer clear of boats and people. The little that is known about the whales comes from studies done after similar beachings, said John Heyning, deputy director of research and collections at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

For example, previous dissections led to knowledge that these whales use their tongues like pistons, pulling them in quickly to slurp up squid, Heyning said.

He and a team of biologists will dissect BJ today, hoping to learn why she died and to what species of beaked whale she belongs. They also hope to determine her age. Friends of the Sea Lion volunteers believed her to be between 12 and 18 months old, but Heyning suspects she may be younger.

“We hate to sound morbid, but these animals do benefit science,” Heyning said. “If they’re going to die, better they should die where scientists can find them than at sea where they keep their biology a mystery.”