MADEIRA BEACH — A woman on a day trip from Oldsmar heard about it in a trinket shop in John's Pass Village, a nearby retail center for tourists. Word also spread quickly among the retiree crowd that takes early morning walks along the shore. Soon the TV news stations' helicopters were hovering overhead.
There was a sperm whale, lolling in the gentle Gulf of Mexico surf, roughly 40 feet offshore, and it was there for all to see. The whale was spotted about 7:15 a.m. just north of Johns Pass.
And so they came to see it Thursday, from the Canadian tourist to the Madeira Beach sales agent to that retired school bus driver in the trinket shop. By noon, hundreds were gathering, sometimes two to three deep, behind the yellow police tape put up to give authorities a little space as they planned their next step of action.
What the crowd didn't immediately know — but would soon come to find out — was that they were about to witness not a rescue or some repatriation to the sea depths sperm whales are known to inhabit.
What they were about to see was a mercy killing.
The sperm whale, later determined to be a 32-foot sub-adult male, or the equivalent of a teenager, was so emaciated and sick as to be on the verge of death. The species is too large to rehabilitate, and if marine biologists managed to return it to deeper waters, the sperm whale would either return or beach itself somewhere else, marine experts at the scene said.
“He didn't get to have a long and healthy life, which is quite a shame,” said Mike Walsh, co-director of the Aquatic Animal Health program at the University of Florida's College of Veterinary Medicine.
Walsh led a team to pump a couple of liters of potassium chloride into the beast's heart, killing it.
“It's one of the saddest things I have ever seen,” said Patrick Donahue, a 49-year-old hotel worker who lives in Madeira Beach, as he watched the animal lazily toss and turn earlier in the day. “It's a magnificent creature.”
Staff with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies were on hand to explain to journalists — and the spectators on the other side of the yellow tape — what was happening.
“You just don't want to prolong suffering in a case like this,” said Laura Engleby, NOAA's marine mammal branch chief for the federal agency's southeast division. “The most human course of action in this case is to euthanize.”
Walsh and his crew had to wait for the tide to recede so they could be able to safely wade out to the whale and inject it first with sedatives, then the potassium chloride.
As the tide went out, though, less of the whale was left buoyed by the water, and it started thrashing more violently than it had all day.
The whale was beginning to feel the full weight of gravity. Out of water, the whale's massive lubber would crush its internal organs, said Erin Fougeres, a marine biologist with NOAA.
Walsh said he and his team first injected two 55-ml shots of sedatives into the animal's back with needles 5 1/2 inches long. Walsh said he gauged the effects of the drug on the whale by putting his hand near the animal's right eye, to see how quick its reflexes were. They were slowing.
Then another, larger team approached with a needle a little less than 6 feet long. The needle was plunged roughly 3 feet into the animal's blubber before reaching its heart, after which liters of potassium chloride were forced into the organ with a hand-pump.
This time, the whale's partially open right eye stayed partially open, Walsh said.
A necropsy has been scheduled for today to determine whether the whale died of anything other than natural causes, such as oil pollution, he said.
The last extremely emaciated sperm whale that beached itself in the area did so in 2007 near the Sunshine Skyway, and it did not die from any interaction with humans, preliminary necropsy results show, according to Engleby.