Featured Image Credit: seaworldcares.com
By Eva Gruber
Twenty years ago in January of 1997, a baby gray whale, only a few days old, washed up on a beach in Los Angeles. Rescuers found it rolling in the surf, unable to move or respond. It was severely dehydrated, starved, and in shock. Its mother, or another adult gray whale, was nowhere in the vicinity, and it is not known what could have separated them, or if the newborn was abandoned.
SeaWorld moved the whale to its park, unsure if it had the resources to take care of the newborn as it was the first rescue of its kind. An additional challenge was that no one had ever kept a gray whale in captivity before – these are huge cetaceans, over twice the size and weight of the largest killer whales. However, being the only facility in the area that could possibly deal with the situation, they took on the responsibility of attempting to care for the animal and bring it to a point that it could be released back into the ocean.
She was nicknamed “J.J.”, and she was given a ton of fluids with electrolytes to bring her out of the danger of being dehydrated. Once the fluids started reviving her, she became able to swim. The next task was to feed her – but JJ was a baby whale and in the wild she would still be relying on her mother’s milk. Since SeaWorld staff didn’t have whale milk available, they made their own out of powdered milk, water, ground up fish, and some nutrients and vitamins. Put into five gallon buckets, JJ learned how to drink the “milk” out of a tube.
JJ began to thrive and grow, putting on 50 pounds of weight a day!
The next step was introducing solid food. SeaWorld staff started feeding her buckets of sardines and herrings. At her size and age, she was eating 55 buckets a day – this added up to over 860 pounds of fish a day! However, SeaWorld knew that they couldn’t keep her at their facility. With the goal being to release her back when she was healthy and properly skilled to survive in the wild, she had to know how to be able to forage for food on her own.
In the wild, gray whales forage along the bottom of the sea floor in a very special way – turning onto their right side (almost all gray whales are right-sided), they pick up chunks of the bottom and filter out the sand from the small fish and invertebrates hiding inside. With no idea how to teach the baby this skill, they simply put fish on the bottom to see if the behavior was innate.
Lo and behold, it was! Much to the surprise of SeaWorld staff, JJ almost immediately picked up the method on her own. This was when they knew that she was ready to be released back into her ocean home.
Fourteen months after her rescue, JJ was ready to return back to the ocean for a second chance at life in the wild. She weighed 19,000 pounds, about one-third of the weight of an adult gray whale. Two GPS trackers were attached to her dorsal fin with the hopes of keeping track of her, but they fell off (or were knocked off) only a few days after her release.
It is one of the biggest mysteries in whale rehab what happened to JJ, but SeaWorld staff that were there 20 years ago are confident that she survived and is still swimming around to this day.