Distressed baby whale euthanized in Windward Oahu

Photo: NOAA NMFS Permit 18786

The baby melon-headed whale first spotted Sunday, Sept. 18, in waters off Windward Oahu died on Friday, Sept. 23.

Wildlife officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had been monitoring the whale since its first sighting in Kailua Bay. It was swimming between 200-500 yards offshore and appeared to be searching for its mother.

NOAA previously found the remains of a whale, leading officials to believe the calf’s mother was attacked by a shark.

NOAA reported that as several days passed, the whale calf continued to mill in the same area, but by Thursday, its activity level had decreased substantially and it began to linger for long periods of time at the surface, a behavior known as “logging,” which is a sign of a serious health issue.

On Friday, the whale’s condition continued to deteriorate, and at approximately 11 a.m., the whale was sedated in the water by NOAA Fisheries staff and a NOAA contract veterinarian with vessel support from Ocean Safety and Lifeguards Services personnel. The whale was then brought to shore and euthanized shortly thereafter.

A Hawaiian cultural practitioner was called to perform a blessing on the whale, and a necropsy will be performed to gather more information about the mammal. After the necropsy, the cremated remains of the whale will be returned to the cultural practitioner, who will scatter the ashes back to the sea.

“With this species, because they’re wide-ranging, deep ocean animals, social animals, they do not do well in a captive situation,” explained David Schofield, NOAA Pacific Island region marine mammal response coordinator. “The unfortunate outcome was that this is a dependent calf without its mother, therefore not getting milk or nutrients.

“It needed that bond with its mother and bond with pod mates. These animals move in groups of 100-200 at a time, maybe even 800. The fact that you have a lone melon-headed whale, which is part of a social species, there’s very little chance for hope for survival,” Schofield added.

“It was obviously suffering greatly. Yesterday and today, we saw a real decrease in behavior and responsiveness, so we wanted to do what was humane for the animal,” he said. “A lot of people were attached to this animal, not just the public, but myself as well, and as a member of staff. I’m taking this very hard today. It’s been an emotional day after watching the animal all week.”

Of the 103 melon-headed whale stranding records in a nationally populated marine mammal stranding database maintained by NOAA Fisheries from 1848 to the present, only 19 whales have previously been brought in for attempted rehabilitation. Seventeen died or were humanely euthanized, most within hours to a month of their transfer into rehabilitation. One survived for seven months, and one was brought to Sea Life Park for permanent care and survived for six years.

Shark warning signs were kept in place as is standard practice whenever there is an animal at sea in distress.

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