KNEELING in the back of a pickup truck, buffeted by cold wind and spraying seawater, Allen Ingling struggled to stay focused as he aimed a .577 caliber rifle at a young humpback whale stranded in the surf.
Though considered an expert in the use of firearms to kill whales, the retired veterinarian from Maryland had never before fired at a live one. Now, the federal government was asking him to put this animal out of its misery and end a public spectacle that began three days earlier when it washed up on East Hampton's Main Beach.
Ingling, 73, was to deliver the final blow, a bullet into the brain stem of the creature already sedated with medicine delivered by darts. Death would be immediate and painless.
But like so much of an intricate euthanasia effort led by at least 20 of the country's top experts on sea mammals, the shooting didn't go as planned.
Ingling fired once, but the whale continued to breathe. A second shot sent a quiver through its body, but it seemed alive. Frustrated now, Ingling fired a third shot. A few minutes later, scientists determined it was safe to approach the whale, and administered a lethal injection of phenobarbital.
"I didn't sleep well that night," said Ingling. "I was disappointed in myself. If I had had time to study it and consulted with other anatomists, I could easily have killed it with one shot."
The episode highlighted the difficulty federal and local officials faced in mercifully ending the humpback's life. With the whale stuck in heavy surf and moving for more than 72 hours, scientists led by the National Marine Fisheries Services had few options, all of them relatively untested due to limits on human knowledge of whale pathology.
The sedative supply on hand failed to calm the humpback enough to approach. Complicating matters was that the rare stranding of such a huge whale occurred while some of Long Island's top marine biologists were at a conference 400 miles away.
"This is one of the most unique situations that I have ever seen and that many of the experts have ever encountered," said Rob DiGiovanni, executive director of the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, a nonprofit with a lead role in last week's effort.
Experts were away
It began around 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, while East Hampton Village police Officer Christopher Jack was patrolling Main Beach and noticed a whale about 300 yards off the coast. That's a common sight this time of year as whales migrate from southern breeding waters to northern summer feeding grounds.
"I took it as a good start to the morning," Jack said.
But about a half-hour later, as Jack finished his rounds, he saw the whale in the surf, almost on the beach. He called the Riverhead Foundation, and sent them a cell phone photo of it.
The challenges were clear from the start, said Charles Bowman, president of the Riverhead Foundation. Most of its rescues involve smaller sea animals such as seals, dolphins and turtles. Most whales die at sea, and the stranding of a whale of this size happens about once a year on the East Coast.
The foundation called DiGiovanni and rescue program director Kim Durham at a federally sponsored conference on sea mammal strandings in Shepherdstown, W. Va. DiGiovanni immediately told federal officials, who have jurisdiction over strandings involving endangered species such as the humpback whale. Soon the conference's 200 experts were buzzing.
"It's kind of cold irony," said Jamison Smith of the federal fisheries agency, who led the effort. "When you have that many experts in one spot, it's inevitable that something is bound to happen."
Based on assessments from the scene, DiGiovanni and others at the conference decided the whale couldn't be saved. It was too large - almost 30 feet - for any aquarium in the United States, and there's no facility equipped to care for large balleen whales, especially one that may be sick, Smith said.
Dragging it back to sea would likely doom it to death by sharks, as it appeared sick and exhausted, Smith said.
The most humane option, the scientists decided, was to wait and let it die naturally. They thought it would be over in a matter of hours. "Human intervention in a case like this is very stressful for the animal," said Mendy Garron of the federal fisheries agency, who had directed the efforts from West Virginia since Tuesday.
On Wednesday morning, though, the whale was still moving, blowing air and making noises, Bowman said. Crowds were beginning to form.
It was time for "Plan B," Bowman said: Sedating and possibly euthanizing the whale, which they now feared could linger up to two weeks.
DiGiovanni and Durham arranged for the first flight from the Washington, D.C., region to MacArthur Airport in Islip. David Morin, a federal marine biologist, was called out of a meeting in Maine and ordered to Long Island.
Garron said common euthanasia methods such as bleeding the 13-ton animal, or using explosives or a lethal injection were ruled out as too dangerous because they involved touching the whale, which sat about 20 feet into the surf at low tide in heavy waves.
The experts decided instead on a dart projector, which Smith had used three times before - twice with Morin to sedate whales and once to administer antibiotics to humpback whales that had swum up the Sacramento River in California.
Morin raced to his office in Gloucester, Mass., to pick up the dart projector and then made a two-hour drive south to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where doses of butorphanol, a powerful opiate, are stored for veterinary purposes.
Short window of time
A U.S. Coast Guard boat then gave Morin a ride to East Hampton, where he arrived around 10 p.m. to meet DiGiovanni and Durham. They had to work fast before the tide rolled back in over the whale.
"Our windows of opportunity were short - at low tide and the surrounding hours," Smith said.
Little is known about sedating large mammals such as humpback whales because they are not kept in captivity. Smith said the dosage given to killer whales is used as a standard and then scaled up for larger animals.
At 1:30 a.m. Thursday, after talking to federal veterinarians in charge of euthanizing stranded marine mammals, Morin filled three darts with more than twice as much butorphanol as was thought to be needed for sedation, Smith said.
"An approved method of euthanasia is over-sedation," Smith said.
East Hampton Village flood lights were set on the beach as Morin, standing about 15 to 20 feet away, fired three darts into the whale's lower back, where it would be absorbed more quickly into the system, Smith said. The team stayed there all night to monitor the whale. "We saw little change in the animal's behavior," DiGiovanni said.
On Thursday, they called the Bronx Zoo for more drugs. Morin and DiGiovanni then waded in at low tide to tie a heavy manila rope around the whale's tail to get some measure of control over its position. Morin was so exhausted afterward that he needed oxygen from an ambulance.
Morin said the whale seemed alert as he approached to remove the darts that morning, but scientists don't know if it was feeling pain. "It was moving a little bit. I wouldn't say vocalizing, but it definitely knew that we were there," he told a Newsday video journalist.
In West Virginia, meanwhile, the federal officials directing the effort decided Thursday to send a team to East Hampton, as onlookers and coverage grew.
Among the consultants sent to the scene were Michael Moore of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who travels the world studying whales, and Ingling, a retired veterinarian and engineer who had helped American Indian tribes use guns to hunt whales.
A final attempt
They drove eight hours from West Virginia to New York through a heavy rainstorm, arriving at 4 a.m. Friday. A final push to euthanize the humpback had already begun with low tide Thursday at 10 p.m. Armed with the sedatives meperidine, midazolam and nedetomidine, Morin shot six more darts into the whale, with no visible effect. Another three darts were then fired, DiGiovanni said.
One dart struck and bounced off or dislodged from the whale. It is still missing, though officials said its contents had likely been dispersed.
After the second round of darts, the whale appeared sedated. Some thought it was dead.
At daybreak Friday, though, a scientist noticed it was breathing. Ingling was asked to get his gun, a custom-made T-Rex model, normally designed for big-game hunting, that had never been fired.
Moore, and Ingling picked a target based on consultations with other scientists, an educated guess at an entry point that would hit the brain stem, Ingling said. "I did not know exactly where the target was," he said.
He had not eaten in the past day, nor had he slept much. "We were probably a bit in too much of a hurry," Ingling said. "I didn't adequately prepare for this event."
The shots may have knocked the whale out and probably did not cause pain. But scientists decided to inject it with phenobarbital. By 10:30 a.m., it was declared dead.
In retrospect, DiGiovanni, Smith and Garron said there was little they'd do differently. The response, they said, was a learning experience and a success.
Charles Bowman, president of the Riverhead Foundation, said communication broke down after the dart was lost, which he said should have been immediately disclosed publicly for safety reasons. "I think you have to have a much better decision-making process," Bowman said. "Everyone's upset and rightfully so."
Federal officials defended their response, saying the dart almost certainly poses no danger. While euthanizing the whale took longer than anyone wanted, that's due to limits on human knowledge about whales, not a poor decision-making process, officials said. "I believe the response went very well," Garron said. "We did everything in our power to ease the suffering of the animal."
With Mario Gonzalez and Debbie Tuma