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Beached beaked whale suffered several ailments

By Dan Nakaso

LAST UPDATED: 08:21 a.m. HST, Aug 31, 2010

The deep-diving beaked whale that beached itself in Kihei, Maui, on Aug. 16 had been cared for by students, marine biologists and Hawaiian practitioners around the clock for two weeks before it died in Hilo on Sunday afternoon, stricken by a series of maladies.

A necropsy that began Sunday night and continued into yesterday found that the 11-foot-long, 1,800-pound Blainville's beaked whale had severe gastrointestinal disease, a large perforation in the stomach wall and kidney disease -- all of which could have been the result of a viral or bacterial infection, said David Schofield, marine mammal response coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"Each one of those have the ability to kill the animal, so it had a lot going on with it," Schofield said. "It was a pretty sick whale."

Blainville's beaked whales typically exist in 800 to 1,000 feet of water, and the "late adolescent" whale could have been struggling for weeks offshore before it grounded itself, Schofield said.

In response to a reporter's question, Schofield said he could not determine whether Navy sonar played a role in the whale beaching itself.

"We are just continuing to do our analysis and can't speak to that," he said.

Further tests will be conducted on Oahu, including a CT scan on the whale's head, which will look for such things as parasites and any evidence of a gas embolism from ascending too quickly.

The whale came aground on Maui, and a NOAA team kept it in shallow water until a Coast Guard C-130 flew it to Hilo, where it was transported to the University of Hawaii-Hilo's Hawaii Cetacean Rehabilitation Facility.

Its handlers played whale songs in its pool, and the first audiogram of its kind showed the sickened mammal had normal hearing for a small-toothed whale, Schofield said.

Over the course of two weeks at the Cetacean Rehabilitation Center, the whale also twice emitted a "low kind of trumpeting sound," Schofield said. "What it meant and what it was trying to do with that communication, we don't know."

The whale's attendants had been feeding it a "squid milk shake" of squid, electrolytes and saline solution through a stomach tube and had seen a rise in the animal's white blood cell count.

When the whale died, its attendants had been discussing whether it might have to be euthanized, Schofield said.

"In these situations we want to do what's best for the animal," he said. "We don't want to prolong suffering."

Blainville's beaked whales are only seen 3 percent of the time so even beaked-whale researchers do not have two weeks of access to the animals in a pool, Schofield said.

"They're not that rare," he said, "but it was a rare chance to learn from the animal."

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