When they got to work, Maya was nosing the prone calf to the surface trying to get him to breathe, then pushing him to the pool floor to press her mammaries to him, hoping he might nurse. Again and again, up and down — as if there was any hope.

The calf was fine when staff left at midnight.

"For the little male dolphin, it was completely out of the blue," Weadock says.

Though staff initially had monitored the calves 24 hours a day, they grew confident enough to have dialed back to 18-hour shifts.

They sent the body to the Johns Hopkins Department of Molecular and Comparative Pathobiology for a necropsy, the animal equivalent of an autopsy. They were still waiting for the results on Friday when someone noticed Spirit's calf seemed to be breathing too fast.

Staff immediately began to monitor — quite literally — every breath the calf took.

The breathing eventually slowed to a normal rate, but by then something was very wrong with her nursing. Instead of taking milk from her mother every 60 minutes, she'd wait two or even three hours.

Trainers and medics stayed by the calf's side overnight Friday and all day Saturday. When she weakened noticeably, they knew they'd have to drain the pool to get a blood sample.

Late Saturday afternoon, when the water had dwindled to thigh-high, staff waded in to grab the calf and draw her blood. Keeping Spirit close by, they gave her antibiotics and fluids. Because the calf was unaccustomed to holding still, someone worked her tail up and down for hours, to give her a sense of movement. They held her lightly, and walked her around the shallow pool.

It was about 8 p.m. when she died.

"We were trying to save her but we didn't know what was wrong," Hunter said. "They mask their symptoms so much. When they start to show you something, they're already really sick inside."

Of 14 calves born at the aquarium since 1992, five died within their first year of life. Two more died as juveniles.

Aquarium officials had no plans to breed any of the dolphins any time soon. They had assumed their hands would be full with the two calves.

With no breeding arrangements in place, and with the gestation period of a dolphin nearly one year, Hunter guessed Baltimore had seen its last dolphin newborns for at least a couple of years — perhaps longer if officials go ahead with discussed infrastructure updates at the aquarium. Sensitive newborns and building construction don't mix.

The body of Maya's calf has joined the other at Johns Hopkins. It could be a two-week wait for results. The lab will then likely cremate the remains.

For now, Hunter calls the deaths "a mystery." She has no idea if they are related, if the timing is mere coincidence.

While they wait for answers, aquarium staff are keeping a close eye on their eight remaining dolphins. Hunter says there are no signs of any problems.

"You just want to take every precaution," she says.

Trainers are also trying to distract the mothers, who are grieving in their own way. They've been calling out to their missing calves, and looking for them in the water.

"They're mourning," Weadock says. "Just like we are."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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