Rehabilitation of a Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus) Calf
IAAAM Archive
Robin K. Moore; R.T. Goldston; Chris Koberna; Melody Baran
Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Clearwater, FL, USA


The Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) has been a dedicated member of the Southeast United States (SEUS) Stranding Network since 1979. CMA's Marine Animal Stranding Response Team has over the years responded to more than 300 marine mammal stranding events and has worked with a wide variety of species. Every live stranded animal that enters our facility provides us with a unique opportunity to gather information which better prepares us to deal with future standing events.

On August 7, 2001, CMA was contacted by Gulfworld Marine Park in Panama City, FL concerning a stranded sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus). It was found on St. George Island at 6 am, rescued by GMP and transported to Cheifland, Fl for transfer of care to CMA's stranding response team. Total transport time was 10 hours during which the whale remained calm with normal respirations and multiple defecations. Physical exam upon arrival at CMA revealed a 513 kg, 3.65 m, male sperm whale in poor condition. Age was approximated at 2 months based on body size, persistent umbilicus and lack of dentition. The whale was severely dehydrated, underweight and his entire body was covered with deep excoriations and multiple shark bite wounds. The left mandible had an abscessed shark bite wound and the distal 2/3 of the eft fluke was mangled and necrotic. All lung lobes were raspy on auscultation but no dyspnea or blowhole discharge was evident.

Rehabilitation efforts were begun despite guarded to grave prognosis for complete recovery. Initial treatment was supportive and directed at correcting hydration, administering nutritional supplementation, and instituting antibiotic therapy. Range of motion physical therapy was performed to encourage active free swimming.

Based on literature review and communication with other rehab. facilities, "George's" dietary requirement was established to be 30-60 kcal/kg/day. His base formula was extrapolated from the one used successfully by Mote Marine Aquarium on several Kogia orphans. Some early digestive upset and mild constipation was seen, but dietary adjustments and stool softeners resolved the condition. "George's" maximum weight was 566 kg at 32 days into his rehabilitation.

Broad spectrum antibiotic therapy was instituted immediately and continued throughout rehabilitation. Both gentamicin sulfate (Gentocin 2 mg/kg IM BID) and ceftriaxone sodium (Rocephin 10 mg/kg IM) were given upon arrival at CMA. Gentocin was discontinued after 5 days due to ototoxicity and nephrotoxicity concerns. Rocephin was replaced by ceftiofur sodium (Naxcel 1 mg/kg IM SID), which due to affordability and availability was used throughout rehabilitation. The majority of the dermal excoriations healed rapidly and completely. Daily cleansing and debridement of the mandible abscess and mutilated tail was done with 2% chlorhexiderm solution. Amputation of the left fluke was seriously considered but postponed due to "George's" debilitated condition and other medical concerns.

Complete blood count and serum chemistry profiles were run every 3 to 7 days as monitoring parameters. "Normals" were extrapolated from values obtained from previously stranded Physeters. A persistently low RBC (1.6-1.99 mill/cmm), Hct (30.3-38.7 %), Hgb (11.4-14.2 g/dl), and total protein (4.2-4.4 g/dl) resulted in hesitancy to perform surgical amputation of the affected fluke. Therapy with human recombinant erythropoietin (Epogen 58 U/kg IM EOD q 3 doses) was unsuccessful at stimulating erythrocyte production. The leukogram was within normal limits with total WBC remaining between 1.6 and 1.97 thds/cmm until immediately prior to death when it spiked to 20.6 with a pronounced neutrophilia (19.158) and lymphocytosis (1.442). Serum chemistry profiles were consistently normal. Morbillivirus AB screen was negative. Fecal and stomach content analysis were negative for parasites and normal.

Additional medical problems were addressed as they developed. A granular corneal lesion noted on day 25 rapidly progressed to perforation and lens luxation. Temporary tarsorrhaphy was performed in an attempt to save the globe. Digestive upset evidenced by regurgitation was treated with dietary adjustments and cimetidine (Tagamet 5 mg/kg PO). Administration of diocyl sodium succinate (DSS 1 mg/kg PO SID q 3 doses) and soap/water enemas used in an attempt to relieve constipation were minimally successful. The left fluke tissue became gangrenous and enrofloxacin (Baytril 2.5 mg/kg IM) was administered when fistulous tracts were noted 24 hours prior to death.

The ultimate cause of "George's" death was a fatal bloat that was unable to be relieved by gastric tube insertion and medical therapy. Necropsy revealed free gastrointestinal fluid in the peritoneal cavity and a functional occlusion of the colon by lymph node enlargement at the base of the peduncle. Widespread ascending septicemia is suspected; final histopathology results are pending.


The Clearwater Marine Aquarium wishes to thank all the other marine mammal rehabilitation facilities who continually offer us support. We most notably appreciate Dr. Charles Manire and Dr. Forrest Townsend for openly and eagerly sharing their expertise and seasoned advice. We also thank the Marine Mammal Pathobiology Lab (St. Petersburg, FL) for providing use of their facilities and corroborating in performing necropsies.

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Robin K. Moore

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