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Sperm whale euthanized

Biologists couldn't coax it away from the shore and into the gulf.

By AARON SHAROCKMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published January 2, 2008

Officials tow the 30-foot whale to shore after it was euthanized with the help of a sedative and a dart gun that injected the narcotic Meperidine into the whale from 25 feet.
[Lara Cerri | Times]
[Lara Cerri | Times]
Andy Garnett, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, takes a moment beside the adolescent sperm whale that was euthanized Tuesday after it was found floating near the Pinellas coast on Sunday.

ST. PETE BEACH -- An endangered adolescent sperm whale found floating in the coastal waters off Pinellas County was put to death Tuesday after biologists concluded the 15-ton mammal could not be saved.

The whale was euthanized about 9 a.m., said Laura Engleby, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service.

Biologists spent two days trying to coax the toothed mammal back into deeper waters. But over time, the whale became unresponsive and its breathing became labored.

After trying to help the whale survive, marine biologists on Tuesday were as deliberate planning for its death.

Jamison Smith, an NOAA marine biologist, flew in from Massachusetts Monday night to help administer a sedative so biologists could approach the massive whale while it floated in the shallow gulf waters.

Using a one-of-a-kind dart gun manufactured in New Zealand, Smith injected 50 cubic centimeters of the narcotic Meperidine into the whale from a distance of about 25 feet.

The $40,000 gun, which the NOAA calls a remote drug delivery injection device, has been used only a handful of times since it was developed in early 2007.

"This is the only device of it's kind in the world," Smith said.

The device helped save a pair of sick humpback whales in May which had gotten lost in the Sacramento River in California, Smith said.

In this case, the sedative allowed marine veterinarians to inject a lethal dose of the sedative barbital into the 30-foot whale.

About 100 onlookers gathered on the beach at Fort De Soto as a boat towed the dead whale ashore. Biologists were scheduled to perform a necropsy late Tuesday hoping to understand what was wrong with the mammal. There were no visible signs of trauma.

The whale's remains will be buried at the park, Engleby said. She was reluctant to say where specifically since it is illegal to possess bones of the federally protected species.

More than 1,300 sperm whales live in the Gulf of Mexico, according to one estimate, but most spend their entire lives in waters deeper than 660 feet. The move to shallow waters is often a sign of distress.

Sperm whales have the largest brain of any animal -- 17 pounds on average in mature males -- and could live for more than 70 years, according to the NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service.

Washed-up whales are rare in Florida.

[Last modified January 2, 2008, 00:11:02]

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