Second dolphin calf dies at National Aquarium

Animal trainer Deirdre Weadock has worked at the National Aquarium long enough to have seen her share of life and death, but she'll tell you this has been the roughest week of her career.

Losing one dolphin, then another, within days.

"You can't really describe what this feels like to other people," Weadock said Sunday, her voice breaking. "I guess any parent can relate."

On Saturday night, the second of the aquarium's two calves died in the arms of the aquarium's medical workers as they tried desperately to save her.

The first had been found dead in the pool on Tuesday.

The loss of the two bottlenose dolphin calves is a blow to the Inner Harbor attraction, where officials had begun only this month to promote them. And it's one that officials say almost surely precludes any further dolphin breeding in the aquarium's near future.

"We're all exhausted and emotionally spent," said Sue Hunter, the aquarium's director of animal programs. "We want to focus on the animals because they feel a loss too."

Though the aquarium canceled dolphin shows on Sunday so that staff could mourn, officials said it would be business as usual Monday — even if trainers and staff are unlikely to have gotten over such a traumatic week.

The calves were born in April to Maya and Spirit, half-sisters who are both 10 years old and first-time mothers. Spirit's calf arrived on the morning of April 14. Maya's was born two weeks later.

Because the National Aquarium has no male dolphins of breeding age, Maya and Spirit were impregnated by a male named Chinook brought to Baltimore from Chicago's Brookfield Zoo just for the purpose.

Both in the wild and in captivity, mortality rates for dolphin newborns are perilously high — about 33 percent. The aquarium started the calves on 24-hour watch, with staff staying with them constantly to monitor their breathing, their nursing, their fecal output. Any whiff of abnormality was a cause for alarm.

Early on, staff were concerned about Maya's confusion with nursing. She didn't get it, and figured it out only after coaching from one of the other female dolphins.

But with that scare over, the newborns seemed to thrive, and staff allowed themselves to breathe a bit more easily.

The calves — one female, one male— learned to swim, filled out, began to vocalize with clicks and "eeps" and started to exhibit signs of personality. Spirit's calf, the female, emerged as the plucky one, curious and independent. Maya's calf was timid, sticking close to his mother's side.

The aquarium began proudly publicizing the calves earlier this month, and the staff tried to work them into the popular dolphin show in a way that could show them off, but keep their newborn atmosphere as tranquil as possible.

Their answer was a "lite" version of the dolphin show — one in which they took the usually boisterous, splashy crowd-pleasing spectacle and ratcheted the energy level way down. They hushed the music, allowed fewer visitors in at a time, and substituted video of the babies for most of the noisy acrobatics.

For Weadock, who helped raise Maya and Spirit, it was particularly thrilling to watch the two come into their own as mothers.

"It's pretty amazing to watch them," she said. "And just watching these two [calves] grow. You could see how much they developed each day."

Which is why the staff was so stunned to find Maya's calf dead Tuesday morning.

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."