BALTIMORE -- "It's perfect whale-moving weather -- low 40s and dry."
With that declaration by National Aquarium official Bob Jenkins, one of the nation's most exotic animal migrations began here Monday.
It was a kind of aquatic forced march, involving the nighttime transfer of two 900-pound beluga whales by truck from Baltimore's National Aquarium in the Inner Harbor to the New York Aquarium 200 miles north. The popular female whales, named Anore and Illamar, were moved temporarily so that their 260,000-gallon pool here can be repaired.
Working at night to avoid crowds, traffic and other distractions, workers gently hoisted the two animals squealing and snorting on specially made stretchers and placed them in boxes lined with foam rubber. The boxes were then craned into a waiting truck and whisked away to New York.
A veterinarian and various marine mammal specialists accompanied the whales on their journey, slathering them down with shaved ice and Crisco oil to keep their skin from drying. The animals arrived safely at the New York Aquarium on Coney Island at 6:15 a.m. yesterday, just in time to beat rush-hour traffic, according to National Aquarium officials. The entire operation took a little less than eight hours.
"The whales were well attended and everything went off without a hitch," said aquarium spokeswoman Vicki Aversa.
Starting at 10:30 p.m. Monday, workers in wet suits lowered the water level in the whales' pool to about one foot and began pushing, shoving and cajoling the wide-girthed, 10-foot-long, 932-pound Anore onto a custom-made chamois-lined canvas stretcher. Twice she broke the grip of the six men around her, thrashing in apparent protest, and gently whacking some of the slipping and sliding workers to the pool's floor. But eventually she allowed herself to be trussed up in the stretcher.
She was then hoisted by cable from the pool and placed in a specially crafted box of mahogany and marine plywood and wheeled through the aquarium to the front entrance. There a truck-mounted boom crane lifted the box onto a 40-foot-long open-top trailer truck. Minutes later, workers repeated the removal process for the second whale, 904-pound Illamar.
The 5 1/2-hour trip to New York followed. Whale specialists wearing miners' hats attended to the animals as they jounced along in the truck, checking their vital signs, pouring water and ice on them to stabilize their temperature and soothing them as best they could. Two support vehicles filled with additional workers and equipment followed the truck.
Jenkins described the foam rubber pad on which each whale lay as a "very firm waterbed." In addition to four 55-gallon barrels of ice on the truck, he said, aquarium officials had arranged for emergency supplies of extra ice at three points along I-95 and the New Jersey Turnpike. They were not needed.
Officials also had to obtain a permit for the trip from the National Marine Fisheries Service and notify police jurisdictions along the route.
When the $500,000 pool repair job is completed in the next four months, Anore and Illamar will return to Baltimore with a companion, a still unnamed 3-year-old beluga whale captured in the same Arctic river estuary in northern Canada where Anore and Illamar were taken in the summer of 1985.
Jenkins said beluga whales, among the smallest of the whale family, are docile, intelligent and well suited for captivity. "They are easy to maintain and are personable," he said. "They have personalities that people become enamored of."