David Morin points a dart gun, Thursday, at a humpback...

David Morin points a dart gun, Thursday, at a humpback whale that beached itself near Main Beach in East Hampton. (April 8, 2010) Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Deciding whether to euthanize a beached whale isn't easy, experts say, and neither is the process of putting the animal out of its misery.

While some watching on the beach in East Hampton have asked why it had taken three days and counting to deal with the stranded juvenile humpback, whale specialists say the time frame isn't unusual.

Experts said it takes time to assemble a team to make an assessment and gather the drugs and other materials needed to euthanize the whale, if that is the course chosen.

In the East Hampton case, taking action was delayed because veterinarians from the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation were gathered at a conference in West Virginia when the whale appeared, said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which took over Wednesday night.

In addition, agency officials said the foundation didn't have enough of the drugs on hand that were needed to sedate and kill such a large animal.

Foundation president Chuck Bowman said his nonprofit group could not stockpile enough of the drugs to handle a whale because they are dangerous and have a shelf life, and "how often does this happen?"

But NOAA said the biggest reason was the location of the writhing whale in the surf, which made it dangerous to approach it.

"Every single stranding is different," said William Rossiter, president of Connecticut-based Cetacean Society International. "The people on the beach have to make the best assessment possible."

He added that only specialized veterinarians on the scene can make the two crucial calls: whether it's more humane to kill the whale or let it die on its own, and whether conditions allow veterinarians to safely administer first a sedative and then euthanizing drugs.

If the decision is to euthanize because the whale is too sick or young to survive without its mother - in the East Hampton case, it's believed to be the latter - "it's a long process and a long planning process," said Mendy Garron, NOAA's regional marine mammal stranding coordinator.

With the East Hampton humpback, Garron said her agency was notified immediately Tuesday by the Riverhead Foundation when it learned of the stranding. It took until Wednesday evening to get a team of specialists with the expertise, drugs and equipment to the beach. Then they wanted to consult with other national experts.

"In some cases they can't take action because there is not a physical or safe way to do it," Rossiter said. Garron added that "because the animal is in the surf zone, it's been very dangerous to approach it."

Garron said there are usually about a half dozen strandings of large whale species like humpbacks nationwide every year. She said most die on their own.

About seven have stranded on Long Island since 1981, when a 12-ton sperm whale that was nicknamed Physty spent nine days in shallow water before being nursed back to health and deeper water. One was euthanized the day after it washed ashore. The others died after being transported to aquariums.

Using chemicals to euthanize a whale can be tricky because effectiveness varies, in part because cetaceans can shut down blood flow to certain areas of their bodies, which can limit the effectiveness of the drugs.

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