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Stranded whale draws an audience

The dying mammal would not leave its spot in 2- to 3-foot water for the safety of deeper water

The dying mammal would not leave its spot in 2- to 3-foot water for the safety of deeper water

Walter Szeezil had heard about the whale at a New Year’s Eve party. A 30-foot sperm whale was spotted at the mouth of Tampa Bay, Fla., about three miles from Szeezil’s home on TerraCeiaIsland.

“Two or three people told me about it, and I didn’t believe them,” says Szeezil, an avid kingfish angler in the Gulf of Mexico. “I was thinking they were just drunk and kidding around. You just don’t see whales around here.”

He’s right. More than 1,300 sperm whales live in the Gulf of Mexico, but most spend their entire lives in waters deeper than 660 feet. This one had wandered inshore — a sign that something was wrong.

Szeezil finally became a believer when he talked to someone he described as a relatively sober person at the party. He decided to go see the mammal for himself the next morning. He took his 8-year-old daughter, Lauren, and his 6-year-old son, Ryan. They found it right away.

Several boats, including one from the Florida Wildlife and Conservation Commission, were only a few feet from the whale. Szeezil, driving his 26-foot Carolina Skiff powered by a 225-hp Honda, got close enough to size up the mammal. “He was every bit of 30 feet,” says Szeezil, who also runs a 26-foot Glacier Bay catamaran. “His tail was huge and a good part of his back was out of the water.” The whale was in about 2 to 3 feet of water, Szeezil says.

Two veterinarians in wetsuits with a small raft between them walked to the whale. “I didn’t see it, but my daughter said they injected the whale with something,” he says. “I did see the whale roll over and then stop moving.”

The whale was euthanized with a lethal dose of phenolbarbital, says Nadine Slimak, public relations manager with Mote Marine in Sarasota, Fla. Minutes before, a specialist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration injected the whale with a sedative so veterinarians could get close to it safely.

Jamison Smith, NOAA’s large whale disentanglement coordinator, stood on the T-top of the FWC boat and shot 50 cubic centimeters of the sedative maperidine into the whale’s back. “He was lying on his right side, so I needed to get the right angle to get the needle into the muscle in his back,” says Smith.

The 12-inch needle and 13-inch canister that holds the drug are part of NOAA’s Remote Drug Injection System, developed to sedate Right whales. “They are difficult to work with,” says Smith. “They just don’t slow down and they are very powerful.”

It was a big day for Smith because it was the first successful sedation of a mammal using this system. “This opens up a quite a few doors for us in terms of using it for mammals tangled in nets and line or injured mammals,” he says.

Smith says the sperm whale was in rough shape and that euthanizing him was the only answer. Preliminary necropsy findings indicate the whale was emaciated and suffered from chronic illness. Pending test results may determine specifics of the disease. The animal was likely an older female. “She could have just died of natural causes,” says Slimak. “We don’t know yet.”

Biologists spent two days trying to coax the toothed mammal back into deeper waters. But the whale became unresponsive and suffered from labored breathing.

About 100 onlookers gathered on the beach at FortDe Soto as a boat towed the dead whale ashore.

Sperm whales have the largest brain of any animal — 17 pounds on average in mature males — and could live for more than 70 years, according to the NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service.

Sperm whales are present year-round in deep water areas of the Gulf of Mexico. Typically, healthy sperm whales are not found near shore. In the past 10 years three other sperm whales stranded themselves on Florida’s west coast.

Szeezil is glad he took his two children to see the whale. It was an experience they’ll never forget.

“The coolest thing I did over Christmas vacation was go see the whale, even though he died,” says his daughter.