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Sperm whale stranded, euthanized near John's Pass

Sperm whales live in some of the deepest regions of the Gulf of Mexico. When they come this close to shore, it’s a sign of illness.
Published Nov. 1, 2013

MADEIRA BEACH

Hundreds of people gathered on the shore and filled nearby parking lots. They pushed against the yellow caution tape, lobbing questions at aquarium volunteers about the stranded 30-foot whale.

How sick is it? Is it a he or a she?

And most importantly:

Why do they have to kill it?

So intense was the wave of human compassion that aquarium volunteers patrolled the police tape line, explaining over and over why euthanasia was the only option.

Near the end, the whale flailed, turning fully around, flapping its tail, aiming one eye toward the sky.

A team of scientists steadied the animal and minutes later gave it a lethal injection.

Judy Burdignon, standing on the beach for three hours, could not stop watching the animal's final movements.

"I just couldn't walk away."

• • •

The calls began about 7:15 a.m. at first light.

People saw it from their condominium windows or noticed its massive form as they walked on the beach near John's Pass.

As crowds gathered, state and local agencies cordoned off the area with a line of tape. A veterinarian from the University of Florida arrived, along with workers from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

Sperm whales are native to the Gulf of Mexico but live in some of its deepest regions, even thousands of feet under water. When they come this close to shore, it's a sign of illness.

"It's really coming in to die at this stage," said Mike Walsh, the UF veterinarian.

His team stayed out of the water to keep the whale calm but could tell it was sick. A young male, it was too skinny, its skull and rib bones jutting out.

There are no rehab facilities for sperm whales. No space is big enough to hold them.

Over the last 30 years, Walsh said, the thinking about beached mammals has changed. In the past, sick ones washed up on shore and were towed out to sea, only to wash up again.

Officials decided to euthanize the whale and drag it by boat to Fort De Soto.

They waited for the tide to fall so scientists and volunteers tending to the whale would be safer in shallower water.

The whale languished, its body weight putting pressure on its organs as the water receded. Sperm whales aren't made to experience gravity.

About 2 p.m., volunteers waded in and administered a sedative.

A half hour later, Walsh and six helpers brought in a needle attached to a 6-foot syringe and pumped potassium chloride into the animal's chest.

• • •

Watching the whale die was a privilege, Burdignon said.

"I had to see it before I left," she said. "Just to see it complete."

The whale's final movements silenced the crowd of spectators.

About 4 p.m., the carcass was towed to Fort De Soto.

It will undergo a thorough necropsy, a rare chance for researchers to study a creature that rarely makes it so close to land.

They will try to learn why it died and, ultimately, why it beached.

Then they'll bury it in the sand.

Claire Wiseman can be reached at (727)-893-8804 or cwiseman@tampabay.com. On Twitter: @clairelwiseman

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