It seemed some dread November of the soul when Physty, a young sperm whale, beached himself on Coney Island 10 days ago, listing dangerously on his right side and appearing near death.
Not that his name was Physty then. He was simply Physeter Catodon; length 23 feet, weight perhaps 10,000, prognosis bleak. Nine point nine times in 10 when an animal beaches itself it's curtains, Samual Sadowe, the ocean mammologist who treated Physty, would later say; besided, this whale seemed to be suffering a severe case of pneumonia.
Nonetheless, the local scientists threw a rope about the whale's tail and towed him -- at near idle speed -- to sick bay. Terrestrians gathered on the shore with flowers and placards of encouragement ("Get Well Whale!"). The scientists swam about the whale in wetsuits, force-feeding him squid laced with Chloromycetin. Over the weekend, Physty, escorted by a buoyant flotilla of 11 boats, headed back to the open sea, the first sperm whale to survive captivity. Samuel Sadowe, as befitting a scientist, took care to hide his feeling as the whale swam away. "Please keep going," he said to himself. His wife, like others on the shore, was not so restrained: she blubbered.
This week, for Sadowe, who is 25 and bearded and heads Long Island's Okeano's Ocean Research Foundation, it was back -- almost -- to business as usual: taking out a group on a whale-spotting expedition off Montauk and examining data on the breathing and calving and swimming patterns of whales. Still, as it is not every day that you get to talk to a successful whale-doctor, it seemed fitting to call him up for a chat.
He took the story from the beginning, explaining how he'd been notified as part of the New York State Stranding Network, then had driven to Coney Island from his Long Island home with both wetsuit and necropsy tools, the sad truth being that most animals beach to die.
"The first thing we did," said Sadowe, who weighs 145 pounds to the whale's 10,000, "was examine it briefly. To see if it has a reaction to touch, to look at its eyes and see if they're open, to see the extent of the injuries. If it's in too bad shape, it will go into shock; it just won't respond if it's on the way out. . . . Whaleskin is extremely sensitive to touch . . . just touch it lightly with your hand and it responds."
When this whale was touched, says Sadowe, it moved its tail, and moved around a little. It was also clicking -- little pulses of sound, eerie, piercing, yet musical; who knows what they mean? The regulations governing marine mammals are very strict, but Sadowe had a letter of agreement with the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the cooperation of the Coast Guard. Deciding that the whale might be saved, they decided to tow him 15 miles to Robert Moses State Park on Fire Island. They tried to be considerate about this, throwing a blanket over the whale's tail before lassoing it, in order to prevent rope burn. In the process Sadowe was whacked by the tail. He understood.
"The animal doesn't have legs," he says, though for the most part he strains to avoid the anthropomorphic. "It swims around, it moves around, with its tail. If someone took a rope and put it around our legs, you and I would struggle, too."
The diagnosis of pneumonia was made at Fire Island, though Sadowe and his team had suspected it from the beginning. Pneumonia is the most common cause of death among cetaceans. The fact that the whale had been listing on its right side made the scientists suspect that a lung might be congested, and finally cultures from the blowhole confirmed the diagnosis.
That determined the treatment: 20 million units of penicillin a day, using a seven-inch needle to give the whale its shots, and squid laced with Chloromycetin, which Sadowe shoved, with his hands, down the whale's throat. He experimented to see how least to disturb the whale, finally settling on a method in which he approached the whale from its head, then gently patted it as he moved around it, so the animal always knew where he was. He spent 14 to 18 hours a day with the whale, much of it in the water, and as he did a crowd of 5,000 stood on the shore.
"Human beings don't like to see anything die," says Sadowe thoughtfully, asked to explain this, "and I think the fact that -- besides this whale being an endangered species -- the whale is so large, yet so gentle. . ."
By the weekend, the whale was swimming strongly, and was nudged by a motorized rubber raft out to sea.
Humans on the shore remarked that it seemed reluctant to leave the boat basin which had served as its sick bay, swimming away as it approached the gateway. But it did, the humans on the shore yelling, "Go Physty!", the scientists cheering.
The cautious Samuel Sadowe -- who went out in a small plane yesterday to see if he could spot the whale -- reserves judgment. "I feel pretty good, but I want to wait a week," he says, conceding that when you spend so much time with an animal, even though you are a scientist, there is "an attachment."
Which brings to mind, has the whale specialist ever read Moby Dick?
"He shall rise from the deep and beckon ye to follow," quotes Sadowe.