NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - A young melon-headed whale that beached itself last week along the Mississippi coast is showing signs of improvement, according to veterinarians treating him at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport.
The whale, which experts said was between 2 and 3 yeas old, was near death when it was spotted along Cat Island. In fact, the rescue team dispatched to find the whale thought it was too late as they approached it in a boat. Veterinarian Debra Moore was among that team.
“To be able to see him breathing there was really exciting because we did think he was dead,” Moore said.
Dr. Moby Solangi is the institute’s president and executive director.
“This animal traveled about 100 miles alone as a young animal and stranded on Cat Island” Solangi said.
That journey shows signs of having been a rough one.
The whale, according to scientists, was disoriented and other marine creatures had scratched and chewed on it, according veterinarian Christa Barrett.
“He does have some shark bites on him as well,” Barrett said. “So, we know there are some shark bite lesions”
Barrett cautions they may never fully understand what happened, but one likely suspect involves the annual summertime Gulf of Mexico dead zone, when fertilizer runoff prompts algae blooms that consume oxygen.
This year, the high Mississippi River forced back-to-back openings of the Bonnet Carre Spillway north of New Orleans. That same high river deposited even higher than normal levels of nutrients into the Gulf at the mouth of the river.
“We’re actually very impressed with his improvement.” Barrett said. “By no means is he out of the woods.”
Part of the dolphin family, melon-headed whales rarely encounter humans.
“I’ve seen one other live one that we treated here, rescued and rehabilitated and released,” Moore said.
It provides an even more rare opportunity for scientists studying dolphin and turtle deaths along the Gulf coast this year, including nearly 200 dolphins in Mississippi alone.
The whale was the first stranded marine mammal to be found alive, Solangi said.
“These are like little black boxes,” Solangi said. “They kind of stored that information, and by studying this particular animal, we’ll see what happened in his journey.”
The whale is more active than when it was discovered and eating better, prompting vets to upgrade his condition from critical to guarded.
Veterinarians plan to examine blood work, X-rays and ultrasounds to determine how the whale is responding, along with its eating habits.
Solangi said the institute hopes to eventually release him back into the Gulf, where tracking devices could provide more information about this elusive creature.