A rarely spotted melon-headed whale found on the beaches of Indian Shores last month died during rehabilitation efforts, rescuers said.
The 8-foot long adult male melon-headed was being treated by SeaWorld Orlando's rescue operation team at a facility separate from the parks, said Jon Peterson, manager of SeaWorld Orlando's rescue operations. Peterson said the animal was a fighter, showing early signs that he might make it back to the wild. Tests, however, revealed that the whale had parasites in its brain. It was too late.
"Once we got him in the water and we took hands off him for minute, he wanted to swim," Peterson said. "He was actually pretty strong."
Peterson said rescuers worked around the clock. After two weeks, though, the initial signs of strength faded to lethargy. The whale wouldn't eat on his own and could barely breathe. Quality of life was nearly non-existent, Peterson said. The whale was euthanized on Aug. 3 around 3 a.m., just over two weeks after he was rescued.
Bonnie Charity was in tears as her husband held her Friday morning in their Largo home. It was Charity who gave the whale, which she named Sandy, his best shot at survival.
Charity found Sandy just after 6 a.m. on July 20 while on her daily walk along the beach. First, she thought she saw a palm frond, then she saw what it was and maternal instincts kicked in.
"I got attached pretty quick," she said. "He was my baby. My whale baby."
Charity and another passerby, Jason McCarty, held Sandy in the shallow surf for more than an hour as rescuers from Clearwater Marine Aquarium came, keeping his blowhole above water and his body stable.
Rescuers arrived around 7:30 a.m. and were able to get Sandy of the beach just after 10 a.m. He reached SeaWorld 90 minutes later and was immediately tended to by vets. Though Sandy seemed like a good candidate for rehabilitation, the odds, Peterson said, were against him.
"We've done rehab on melon-headed whales before. Unfortunately, melon-headed whales don't do well in rehabilitation," he said. "You don't know why (it was stranded), you don't know the cause so you're sort of behind the 8 ball when you start."
Melon-headed whales are a deep-water species native to the further reaches of the gulf. They're rarely ever sighted near beaches and when they are, it usually means trouble for the animal. Of the few melon-headed whales Peterson has attempted to rescue, he said, none have made it back to the wild. Still, he'll always try.
"Every animal in need, we're gonna do everything we can possibly try to do," he said. "Just because we haven't had a good success rate, doesn't mean this animal doesn't get to try."
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At SeaWorld, Peterson said there is a large focus on rescue, rehabilitation and return to wildlife. Peterson has a 14-person rescue team, plus 150 zoological researchers available from the park and an extended network through SeaWorld's other facilities.
Rescuers from @CMAquarium are now on scene at Indian Shores rescuing what is currently believed to be a melon-headed whale. @TB_Times @cliftimestweet pic.twitter.com/HYnpjhxrG6— Daniel Figueroa IV (@danuscripts) July 20, 2018
"I'm sure they did try everything and I'm sure they did the best they can," Charity said, fighting back tears. "It's not the ending I was hoping for, but I knew it as a possibility."
Despite the outcome, Charity is glad she was able to help. She said the experience changed her life and was among the top-five experiences of her 61 years. Though the loss is difficult, the experience was profound. And if she the chance to do it again, she said she would.
"I'm incredibly sad. I so wanted him to live, but I always knew it would be a chance. I'm glad SeaWorld took care of him and I hope they made sure he didn't suffer in the end," Charity said. "But I'll still be out there and I'd still save another whale if I could."
Michelle Kerr, of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said people should never push beached animals back into the water and should always be cautious around wildlife.
"Stranded marine mammals can be sick or injured, and may be capable of powerful and unpredictable moves," Kerr said. "Pushing an animal back to sea delays, and may hinder, the chance for experienced rescue teams to assess and provide treatment if necessary — and in some cases may cause injury or death of an animal."
Anyone who finds a stranded animal on shore is asked to contact the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission's alert hotline at (888) 404-3922.
Peterson said the whale's sickness was unrelated to a recent rash of Red Tide in the Gulf of Mexico.
Daniel Figueroa IV can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @danuscripts