SAVING AN ABANDONED
BABY GRAY WHALE
The Story of J.J.
By Janet Hogan Taylor

 

On a cold morning in January, 1997, a baby gray whale was found washed up on a beach in Marina Del Rey, California.  This was to be no ordinary whale; this baby whale was about to become world famous and spark questions concerning the future of stranded baby whales.

t was Saturday morning when a baby whale was first discovered rolling about in the surf.  Lifeguards were called in to assist, and after evaluating the situation, decided to push the baby whale back out into the ocean so she would not be pounded by the heavy surf.  They tried to direct the baby whale away from the beach and into deeper water where they hoped her mother would be waiting.  The lifeguards knew this infant gray whale needed nursing and without a mother would surely soon die.

At this point the rescuers did not realize this was going to be the beginning of a long process.  When a marine mammal is found ashore it is the National Marine Fisheries Service (N.M.F.S.) that has jurisdiction over the animal.  So by law, the N.M.F.S. was called to assess the baby gray whale's condition.  The Coast Guard was called to do an aerial view of the area, hoping to spot the mother or other whales.  Lifeguard and other marine mammal rescue boats continued to monitor the baby whale in the water.

By now several hours had gone by and word from the N.M.F.S was to leave the baby alone.  Rescuers could only watch and search for her mother.  The watching and searching went on that entire day and night.  Volunteers stayed up all night to watch the baby whale and report immediately if she beached herself again.  The story was reported to the media and as each hour went by, her story grew and grew.

On the morning of the second day, January 11, 1997, it had been 24 hours since she was first spotted on the beach.  It was now highly unlikely that the baby whale's mother would be found.  She had not nursed for at least one entire day and time was running out.

Media crews began to line the beach and calls went out to rescue the baby gray whale and to take her to Sea World in San Diego where facilities were available to care for her.  Finally the National Marine Fisheries Service decided to rescue the baby whale and Sea World agreed to accept her.  Now all the volunteers had to do was to transport her to Sea World.

By some miracle, the baby gray whale cooperated with the rescuers.  She allowed herself to be beached again.  Even though this was a baby whale, rescuing her from the beach would be no easy task; she weighed more than 1,600 pounds and was more than 13 feet long.  It would take Sea World at least three hours to get a transport truck to Marina Del Rey in Los Angeles.  That meant at least three more hours the baby whale would have to go without nourishment.  It was then decided they would rent a truck and transport her to Sea World themselves.

First they had to load her into the rented truck.  Using undersized stretchers, a group of volunteers including police officers, lifeguards, whale rescuers and ordinary citizens, lent a hand to lift the baby whale out of the surf and into the truck.  They laid the baby whale on lifeguard floatation belts and foam rubber.  The LAPD escorted the truck and whale to the Los Angeles city limits where the CHP took over escorting the truck all the way to Sea World in San Diego.  By the time the baby whale reached Sea World, it had been 36 hours since first being spotted on the beach.

The baby whale was severely dehydrated and hypoglycemic when the veterinarians first examined her.  They gave her glucose and water in an attempt to stabilize her.  Once stabilized, the animal care team prepared whale milk substitute and tube fed the baby whale.  The first night she consumed six liters of milk every three hours.

The whole world was glued to news of J.J., the rescued baby gray whale.  Sea World named her J.J. for the late Judi Jones, Director of Operations for Friends of the Sea Lion, a marine mammal rescue center located in Laguna Beach, California.  For the next few months, media reports of her progress were reported almost daily.  The public cheered when she was out of danger due to Sea World's round-the-clock care by a very dedicated staff.  In one week J.J. was able to suckle from a modified tube and had gained over 70 pounds, now tipping the scales at 1,840 pounds.

Animal care specialists at Sea World continued to learn about whales through the care of J.J.  They were amazed at her rapid growth. By two months of age, she outgrew her 40 ft. holding pool and had to be moved to a bigger 1.7 million-gallon pool.  At three months, she was consuming three gallons of milk formula, consisting of heavy cream, minced fish, powdered milk and vitamins seven times a day.  J.J. was nearly 18.5 feet long and 4,170 pounds and gaining more than 30 pounds every day.

An adult California gray whale can reach the length of 55 feet and weigh as much as 74,000 pounds.  J.J. had a long way to go before reaching adult size, and currently there isn't a facility large enough to house or transport an animal of that size.  Plans will have to be made to release J.J. before she got that big.  Scientists estimated it would take at least a year before she could survive on her own. At five months of age J.J. was introduced to whale sounds and solid foods.  As part of her rehabilitation, J.J. is played recorded whale vocalizations to familiarize her with common whale sounds. J.J. was the largest animal ever accepted into Sea World's Beached Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation Program, and plans called for her to be reintroduced into the ocean in early 1998.

By eight months of age, J.J. was gaining steadily at about 50 pounds and 1/2 inch in length each day.  She still was being weaned from formula and taught to eat solid food from the bottom of the pool ‹ a behavior she would use to feed in the ocean.  She was responding to specialized whale feeding sounds and it was hoped that J.J. would associate these sounds with food, and when released into the open ocean, would follow the sounds, find other gray whales feeding, and feed along with them.

J.J. passed the one-year anniversary of her beaching and arrangements were underway for her release in the next few months. Specially trained sea lions were introduced to J.J.'s pool to help her adjust to other marine life.  High-tech transmitters would track J.J. on her release.  It was hoped the transmitters would track her for 18 months, giving a detailed look at gray whale migration. Gray whales have an annual 12,000-14,000 mile migration between the calving lagoons of Baja, California and the northern waters of the Bering and Chukchi seas.

The day soon arrived ‹ March 31, 1998. It was time to release J.J. after a 14-month rehabilitation.  Things went off without a hitch and she was released from the U.S. Coast Guard buoy tender, the Conifer at 10:17 a.m. PST.  Satellite tracking showed J.J. swimming strongly and exploring the coast off San Diego. At the time of her release, J.J. still a youngster at 31 feet long and 19,000 pounds, was the largest animal ever to be released into the wild.

Within three days both of J.J.'s transmitters had fallen off and were recovered off the coast of San Diego.  However, she still has her red, white and blue streamer identification tag that can be seen from boats and planes, allowing researchers to track her for some time. 

During the rehabilitation of J.J., there was a heightened public awareness concerning whales.  After her rescue another baby gray whale turned up off San Diego and the National Marine Fisheries Services ruled that nature must take its course.  This baby whale died. Would this have happened to J.J. without the media cameras?  With the growing population of California gray whales many people feel we need a whale and dolphin recovery center situated along the gray whale's migration route.  Right now the only facility that is sometimes available is Sea World, and it is not centrally located.  Most marine mammal recovery centers currently tend sea lions and do not have adequate pool facilities for whales and dolphins.

Gray whale populations were at an all-time low of 2,500 animals in 1937.  Federal and international protection has allowed the numbers of gray whales to increase, and it is now estimated that there are about 24,000. In 1994, the whales were removed from the Federal endangered species list.  Some scientists think the whales may be reaching their population limits and we may be seeing more beached whales. 

Since the National Marine Fisheries Service has jurisdiction over marine mammals, a stranding policy that makes sense needs to be established.  Are we only going to help a few whales when the media eye is watching, or are we going to make a sensible plan that addresses the issues raised when marine mammals beach?  Many of us have a hard time standing by and doing nothing when a baby animal is sick or injured.  Others will argue that we should not be interfering.  This is a tough question that needs an answer before a media blitz is on for another beached baby whale.

Right now scientists are optimistic with J.J.'s chances of survival.  They hope she recognizes whale vocalizations, is able to find food and joins up with a group of migrating whales.  So do we all.

EDITOR'S NOTE: It was recently announced that Friends of the Sea Lion in Laguna Beach, California, is currently constructing a pool large enough to accommodate dolphins and will assist Sea World in their efforts. Friends of the Sea Lion is a non-profit organization operated solely from donations. To donate funds, or to volunteer your time, please call (714) 494-3050.


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