Saving SULLY the Stranded Pilot Whale
The summer of 2009 was the beginning of one of the busiest times, and one of the most eventful times, of my life. It was the summer of Sully. Sully was a juvenile short-finned pilot whale (Globicephala macrorhynchus) that stranded on a local beach. Our team of trainers, animal care staff, and a huge outpouring of volunteers helped to rescue, rehabilitate, and open water train him with the hopes of releasing him back into the sea.
The SCCN (Southern Caribbean Cetacean Network) the Curacao Sea Aquarium and the Dolphin Academy received a stranding/sightings call about two pilot whales having spent the night in a large shallow bay next to a local restaurant and beach. A few trainers showed up at sunrise to check out the situation and there was only one individual; a very emaciated juvenile pilot whale. The story we heard from the woman who called in the sighting was that there were indeed two whales, but the larger of the two headed out once it got dark, and the weaker and younger whale could not follow. It did not take long for the youngster to decide it no longer had much strength and it shortly thereafter swam up to the beach and physically stranded itself. Another trainer and I dove in from our boat, swam to shore and held him upright until others could come in as backup. The whale was much too thin and weak to do any fighting and certainly had no energy to swim on his own. We gathered up several noodles from some kids on the beach and used those to help stabilize this 13 foot whale and help hold him afloat. It still took about 8 of us to stand in the water and keep him upright and wet. In the meantime our vet did an exam and took blood and we got to work getting fluids into the whale and trying to keep him from getting sunburned.
The first 48 hours were pretty brutal, with several of us standing in waist deep water in the sun and in the dark. Fortunately, we were lucky to have many interested volunteers who wanted to help out, so we could take shifts and also get some rest. Our veterinarian received the bloodwork results and we began a treatment plan that included tubing medicine and fluids. He responded well and our next step was to begin offering fish, which he quickly and enthusiastically grabbed and ate. That was a very good sign. We set up a temporary holding pen in the sea next to the Zanzibar restaurant and began giving him short opportunities to try swimming. It was necessary for one person to swim on each side of the whale to stabilize him which gave him a chance to start moving his body, and it also gave us a chance to see how his coordination, strength and movements were. On our first "assisted whale swim", it was evident within a few minutes that he was quickly tiring out, and we would once again hold him while others came in alongside, and walked him over to where we could stand. We did this many times during the day until he was able to swim more and more on his own.
January 2009 was also the year that Captain “Sully“ Sullenberger successfully executed an emergency water landing of US Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson River, and all 155 passengers and crew members survived. As we were standing there holding this whale and visiting, we soon began calling our pilot whale “Captain Sully”, (since they were both pilots) and the name stuck.
It was during one of Sully’s initial examinations that we confirmed that the whale was a male, and most likely a 4-5 year old juvenile. This would be at about this age that he would need to be diving and hunting mostly on his own with only supplemental milk nutrition from his mother. It was evident he was not getting enough calories, so something obviously went amiss during this transition. Right now he mostly needed water, food and support, and we were certainly doing that.
It was the following day that our next big hurdle came flying at us. When blood is taken from whales and dolphins, the best place is from the large veins that are in the fluke, or tail. As we restrained him that morning for his meds and physical exam, I quickly saw that he had thrombophlebitis, or an infection in the vein, where his blood was last drawn. This can be a life or death issue, or at the very least could certainly mean that he might lose a significant part of his fluke from infection. This was a big problem. Our veterinarian and our marine mammal team leader put their heads together and came up with our treatment plan and we all sat on pins and needles for the next few days until the tail started looking better and Sully started perking up. That means he was getting less and less happy about us catching and holding him for his exams. In the animal care world, sass is ok if it means the animal is feeling better.
For the next several months we did 24 hour watches on Sully, hauled in floating platforms and made a safer and more permanent holding pen for him. We also watched him grow and put on some weight, and had a very unique opportunity to talk and educated the general public about the local species of whales and dolphins that are found around Curacao and the Southern Caribbean. Once Sully began getting bigger and stronger we implemented our plan of training him to boat following so that he would have the fitness and stamina to stay with a group of pilot whales should they pass by. Boat following is training the whale or dolphin to stay next to, but a safe distance from , the boat as we travel. This also means that each and every morning at 6 am, a team of 6 people would show up at Sully’s pen to open the large swinging gate and train him to follow the boat farther and farther out to sea. At one point Sully was swimming up to 10 miles on his morning outings. We then put out a bulletin asking for all airplanes, helicopters, ships and sailboats to keep their eyes open for groups of pilot whales passing by Curacao, in the hopes that we could meet up with this group and introduce Sully to them and he could return to where he came from.
We did in fact receive just that call, from the Dutch Coast Guard, and Sully and his boat team got a move on it and headed out. Sully needed to swim quite the distance along the southern coast of Curacao and as they passed the Sea Aquarium you could hear the roar of encouragement from staff and volunteers for miles and miles. The Sully band did find the group of pilot whales towards the west end of the island and all fingers were crossed. He stayed to the edge of the large group, and was not interacting much, but also not leaving. However, when it came time for the pilot whales take a large breath and dive down to the depths, Sully did not follow, but instead floated at the surface. We were actually quite stunned and also questioning why in the world he did not follow. But there was not much daylight left, so the long journey back to his pen began.
It was decided that a specialist in marine mammal hearing would come to Curacao from the States, and he did a hearing test on Sully. It was determined that either by birth or injury, his hearing was not in the normal range, and it was because of this that he could not dive -and therefore not hunt and feed- with the wild group of whales. We then understood why he had stranded in the first place. We also quickly understood that he was no longer a candidate for release back to the wild. We all went home with heavy hearts that day.
Next our job was going to be finding a suitable facility where Sully could move to, and lucky for both him and us Sea World of California came forward. They already had a couple of pilot whales, so he could even be with his own species. After piles of paperwork and an international agreement, a large Fed Ex plane landed in Curacao. It took a couple of days to get everything in order, but at 4am one morning we all met up and Sully’s long traveling day from Curacao to San Diego began. He was quite the trooper the entire trip and adjusted quite well to California, with his trainers immediately realizing he was quite the “Rico Suave”. He was first introduced to a group of bottlenosed dolphins and then shortly after to the pilot whales. He was still a youngster, so he found his place easily beside the older matriarch. He had reached his final destination and we were all the better for having met him. Thanks Sully!