Hubbs-SeaWorld senior research scientist Anne Bowles (right) and trainer Stephanie Jol work with Sully, a pilot whale. The whale was found dehydrated and starving in a bay in theCaribbean, then flown to SeaWorld.
•Like dolphins and killer whales, pilot whales are cetaceans.
•There are two subspecies, short- and long-finned. All three of SeaWorld’s pilot whales are short-finned.
•Predators include orcas, sharks and people, who target them for meat, blubber and oil.
•Adults usually weigh from 1,500 to 4,000 pounds, but can grow to 20 feet long and weigh 6,000 pounds.
•There are generally 10 to 50 pilot whales per pod.
•Like bottlenose dolphins, pilot whales use echolocation to navigate and find food, mainly fish and squid.
•They can eat up to 5 percent of their body weight a day in food.
PHOTO BY JOHN GIBBINS - UNION-TRIBUNE
Bowles’ hydrophone recorder sits on the edge of the pool. Sully eventually will perform with two female pilot whales at SeaWorld.
SAN DIEGO— Researchers aren’t sure why the infant, bulbous-headed pilot whale stranded himself, a problem that sometimes affects entire pods of these marine mammals.
Rescuers from SeaWorld took in the whale, which they named Sully, and helped him recover fully. Now, from the uncertain cause that brought him to San Diego, scientists and trainers hope to make many discoveries about pilot whales as Sully grows up.
Sully was found dehydrated and emaciated in a bay next to the Caribbean island of Curacao. The Southern Caribbean Cetacean Network treated him for about six months and then transferred him to SeaWorld, which has two other pilot whales, in January.
The marine-themed park chartered aFedExcargo plane to bring the whale to San Diego. The trip cost more than $100,000, covered by SeaWorld’s Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation Program.
Sully’s caretakers in Curacao had tried to introduce him to other pods, but he always followed the boat back to shore.
“I don’t think he had this huge attachment for us. It was just that the last time he was in the ocean alone, it wasn’t working for him,” said George Kieffer, president of the cetacean network. “When it comes down to an individual animal working so hard to survive … he basically volunteered to be treated.”
A few trainers have suggested that Sully’s stranding resulted from his hearing deficiency, which the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program tested by measuring his body’s electrical responses to various sounds.
Because little is known about pilot whales’ hearing, the Navy used one of SeaWorld’s other pilot whales as a baseline.
More months of analysis are required before the tests will yield reliable results, SeaWorld researchers said.
“These whales are prone to mass strandings” said Ann Bowles, a senior researcher at the Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute. “Nobody knows why. This is one of the pieces of information that we can potentially get an angle on by working with animals that we can get our hands on and look at closely.”
Sully eventually will perform with Bubbles and Shadow — both female pilot whales — in SeaWorld’s Dolphin Stadium, which is being renovated and will reopen in May.
Until then, he shares a pool in the training facility with four male dolphins.
“What I like about what he’s got now, is that he’s got other animals to interact with,” Kieffer said. “Ultimately (Bubbles and Shadow) are really going to want to socialize with him, but they’re going to have that whole, ‘We’re a female team, you’re an outsider’ thing at first.”
SeaWorld officials said it’s impossible to predict Sully’s behavior, but senior trainer Stephanie Jol said his manner so far suggests he won’t be a threat to the trainers or his tank-mates.
“I think he’s one of the sweetest animals I’ve ever met in my life,” Jol said. “He’s got a huge set of teeth. He’s got teeth like you’ve never seen before, but all of the behavior that he’s shown with us is just very lovable and very gentle.”
Jol was selected to work with Sully because she has experience rehabilitating animals, including work with the Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation Program at SeaWorld.
Sully’s rehabilitation off Curacao, where he was kept in a small netted area most of the time, included treatment for starvation. He was tube-fed a special formula until he could eat fish — whales typically hydrate by eating fish — and play with a ball.
Sully has gained 56 pounds since his arrival at SeaWorld and has grown to 11 feet long.
“I gave him maybe a 10, 15 percent chance to survive the night, let alone be a success for rehab,” Kieffer said. “He’s a fighter.”