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Whale finally euthanized, but 1 dart missing

The young humpback whale is pulled up onto

The young humpback whale is pulled up onto Main Beach in East Hampton after it died. (April 9, 2010) Credit: Doug Kuntz

Marine experts used a combination of chemicals and three high-powered rifle blasts to finally put to rest a 13-ton whale beached at East Hampton Friday after a four-day, 20-person operation that left one possibly lethal dart missing in the waves.

A team of divers is due to search those waters for the dart on Saturday, East Hampton village police said. Earlier Friday they distributed a wanted poster for the dart, which may still contain a large dose of sedatives under pressure that could release on contact.

Officials at the scene said it was more likely, however, the chemicals had already dispersed when they hit and ricocheted off the young 30-foot whale.

"Obviously, there is a risk of a significant dose of drugs," said Michael Moore, a veterinarian at the Massachussets-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who worked at the scene. The dart contained a 50-milliliter dose of the sedatives meperidine, Midazolam and medetomidine. Moore said it was unlikely the drugs were still in the 2-foot steel dart, but he and officials said they were erring on the side of caution.

Biologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration led the project that was complicated by strong surf, the young whale's entrenched position and a delay in getting experts and equipment on site.

Officials said they quickly ruled out saving the whale, suggesting without conclusive evidence it may have been sick but in any case could not be moved because of its "location and environmental conditions." A team of more than 20 scientists was delayed in arriving because many were attending a conference in West Virginia this week.

Moore said the humpback, probably a year old, became deeply entrenched in a pool of its own making, mainly as a result of being rocked in the surf. Attempting to approach it could have been risky for biologists, who might have been crushed as it rocked, or hit by one of its flukes or long fins.

Jamison Smith, an NOAA biologist with expertise in whale beachings, said trying to secure and haul the whale back out to sea would likely have resulted in further injury, and its likely return to the beach. "The only option was to watch it die, and that's not an easy thing to do," he said at a news briefing Friday.

Some were aghast to hear the whale had to endure such a long, slow death.

Becky Genia, president of the Shinnecock Indian Nation's Intertribal Historic Preservation Task Force, called the prolonged attempt and ultimate shooting "almost criminal." The tribe Wednesday sent 16 members to conduct ceremonial rites over the whale. "Why couldn't they just let it die naturally?" she said.

Officials worked for days to sedate the whale, using a total of 10 darts, to get close enough to it to inject a deadly dose of phenobarbital. They initially believed it had died at 2 a.m. Friday, but found it still showing signs of life at daybreak. That's when the animal was shot three times at the base of the skull with a .577 caliber rifle.

William Rossiter, president of Connecticut-based Cetacean Society International, said euthanizing with bullets is very rare because it is so difficult to do. "There have been all sorts of efforts to shoot whales and that has been terrible because people don't know where to shoot," he said.

Moore said the .577 bullet was probably smaller than is normally used for such a large animal, noting a .308 would have been better suited.

Live whale beachings are rare in this country, with perhaps one a year.

Experts said the missing dart probably posed little danger.

Paul Forestell, provost at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University and a marine mammal expert, said one would need to be injected by the dart for it to pose a threat.

The Suffolk Health Department was at the scene Friday, and sections of the beach remained closed until further notice.

By 5:30 p.m. Friday, the entire carcass had been dissected for testing and removed from the beach via several trips by a front-end loader. NOAA was to dispose of the carcass through incineration, burial at sea, or on land.

With Jennifer Gundersen,

Debbie Tuma, John Valenti and Jennifer Sinco Kelleher

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