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Whales Returned to Natural Habitat
October 25, 1999

It could have been a scene from a Jacques Cousteau TV special. Dozens of marine scientists on board the UConn research ship, the Connecticut, hovering over two young pilot whales, while they practice the series of steps that will have to be synchronized to assure the whales are released without injury.

Four months ago, the whales were found beached on Cape Cod. Both were severely dehydrated; one had an infection. The Northeast Stranding Network, founded by the Mystic Aquarium, came to the rescue and, since then, has worked around the clock to nurse them back to health. The odds were against them: usually less than 25 percent of stranded whales and dolphins survive.

These two made it and, when it came time to send them back out to sea, it was a bittersweet moment for the scientists, as they guided the whales off the stern of UConn's ship and into the dark, churning waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Within seconds, the pair were seen circling underneath the water's surface; they came up for air, and then disappeared for several minutes. It was a routine that continued for about 10 minutes, before they went into a deep dive and disappeared for good.

"It was awesome," said Karla Kanode, an undergraduate coastal studies major who was onboard the Connecticut for the historic moment. "To witness this incredible effort to save these whales is so exciting." Kanode said she feels the day's experience will help her focus on what she wants to do with the rest of her life.

Richard Cooper, a professor of marine sciences and director of the Marine Science and Technology Center, who also witnessed the event, was beaming. "They came out like a couple of charging tigers; it was an incredible sight to see! This was a great day and an important opportunity for the University."

UConn became involved in the whales' release when Cooper offered the use of the research vessel to the aquarium, free of charge. "As a public institution, not only are we committed to research and education, but we also have a duty to serve the public. By supporting the aquarium in its mission to save the whales, we're fulfilling our responsibilities, as well as playing a role in the advancement of marine sciences," he said.

For the last several weeks Turner Cabaniss, captain of the Connecticut, assisted the aquarium staff in developing a strategy to deliver the whales back to the ocean. First, two huge plywood crates with vinyl liners were constructed at the aquarium and filled half way with water. Specially designed canvass stretchers, hung off poles, were placed on top of the crates. The whales were positioned on the stretchers, where they stayed partially submerged in water for their truck ride to the University's Avery Point campus in Groton. The ship's crane then lifted each box off the truck and placed them on the deck.

"Our ship is well designed for this type of project," says Cooper. Its wide, open December provided enough space for the large crates; the ship's crane had more than enough lift capacity to handle the one-ton crates; and, because the vessel sits low in the water, aquarium staff devised a method of sliding the whales off the stern, which they believed would minimize the trauma to the animals.

It had taken nearly three hours in choppy seas to get to a specially chosen point for the release, about 25 miles from the UConn dock. It's an area that pilot whales have frequented in the past. Now the concern is, can the rehabilitated whales survive on their own? Aquarium officials say they may never know for sure.

For the next three months, the whales will be tracked by satellite. They are the first of their species to be equipped with a special device attached to their dorsal fin. Mystic Aquarium will be able to monitor where the whales travel, how deep they dive and for how long.

There are no doubts about how well UConn's research vessel handled the mission. Soon after docking back at Avery Point, the aquarium's director of research, David St. Aubin, congratulated and thanked Cabaniss for a job well done. "It couldn't have gone better for us," he said. "We'll be back."

To follow the whales on their journey you can log onto the Mystic Aquarium web site:

Janice Palmer