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Hi, I'm Jonathan Bird and welcome to my world!
The ocean is full of fascinating animals, and stories. I love to investigate and film
these stories, and sometimes I get lucky. On a recent expedition, I learned about an
amazing story of survival.
And that story involves a ten foot long pilot whale that was stranded here on the Caribbean
island of Curacao.
The pilot whale's name is Sully, and his story began in July of 2009, when he stranded
on a Curacao beach. But he was incredibly lucky to land there, since it's home to
the Curacao Sea Aquarium—one of the few places in the entire Caribbean with the facilities
and expertise to care for him.
George Kieffer, the president of the Southern Caribbean Cetacean Network was quick to respond
when he got a telephone call alerting him to the stranded pilot whale on a beach only
ten minutes from his office.
I could tell right away it was a pilot whale, but I didn't know if it was a male or a
female but wow, it was a skeleton. It was emaciated as a whale or dolphin could possibly
be and still be swimming. I mean skin and bones.
He had swam right out of the bay and could come back in the bay again, so I don't think
he was disoriented. I think it was one of those situations where this animal is physically
incapable of keeping himself at the surface so, I think a lot of times these animals will
strand because they just don't want to drown, you know? And if they can support themselves
in the shallows, that's what they're looking to do.
The Sea Aquarium staff immediately sprang into action. Because Sully was too weak to
stay afloat on his own, they used foam pool floats to help support his weight, and lots
of human helpers.
Next, they needed to get some fluids into him because he was so dehydrated. Using a
funnel attached to a plastic tube in his mouth, they poured fresh water right into his system.
Although Sully lives in the sea and is surrounded by water, he can't drink any of it because
it's salty. He gets all his fresh water in the fish and squid he normally eats. If
he hasn't been eating, he hasn't been drinking either. Without lots of water fast,
his kidneys would fail.
Once Sully was hydrated, George decided to see if he would eat anything. The dolphins
at the Sea Aquarium like Herring, so George brought over a bucket of herring to try on
Sully. He wasn't sure if the whale would accept food from him.
But Sully was hungry and he gulped down the fish from George. He got so excited that they
had a hard time keeping a hold on him!
Soon, they set up a makeshift pen, mostly to keep Sully safe from boats and curious
Sully had become a celebrity, and the crowds started gathering. Volunteers took turns not
just helping to keep him afloat, but making sure he was safe.
Within only a few days, Sully gained a lot of strength and looked like he was ready to
swim by himself.
George: "Okay? Amy, drop off. Drop off."
The floatation devices were removed one at a time, and Sully swam on his own!
George: "Good kicks of the tail."
But his road to recovery had only just begun.
Up until that point, the volunteers were still calling calling him "the whale." George
decided the pilot whale needed a name.
I started calling him Sully as a nickname. I thought we ought to be calling him something
other than "the whale" so I thought pilot whale, who's a famous pilot? Then I thought
of the pilot who landed his plane in the Hudson and kept all 155 people alive after falling
out of the sky with no engines and I thought that's pretty cool: "Sully."
Within a few weeks, Sully was strong enough that he was getting rambunctious. George felt
he needed so get some exercise. So they trained him to follow a boat.
They started by feeding him fish from the boat inside his pen.
Once he was used to following the boat around for food inside the pen, they took him just
outside the pen and continued the training.
Sully learned very quickly, and within a few days he would follow the boat way offshore
at high speed. This daily exercise helped him get his strength back so he could return
to the wild.
Male voice on boat: "He's in charge of us. He tells us when it's time to go."
By the time I arrived on the island 3 months later, Sully was back to full strength. He
was being fed lots of fish several times a day.
And every day or so, George would give Sully a rub down, to get the dead skin off. Sully
really enjoyed that! George would lie out on a board suspended above the water and Sully
would come right over.
George: This is the only time we touch him and it's to rub off all that loose skin.
But nobody ever went in the water with the whale because they didn't want to acclimate
him to humans. If he became too friendly towards people, they might never get him to go back
to his own kind! He might just start hanging around the beach looking for people to play
But one question that constantly lingered in George's mind was: why did Sully strand
in the first place? What was wrong with Sully, and was he better now?
I joined George one morning as he took Sully out for his daily exercise swim. He seemed
completely rehabilitated. Sully could keep up with the boat easily. George decided Sully
was strong enough to go back to the wild.
George: "So we took him straight out to sea and we figured once we get out there we'll
just toss a few fish away from the boat and we'll leave him. And we did that—it took
us about an hour offshore—we figured we were at least 10 miles out there. Well, okay
its deep ocean water, this is their habitat, hopefully he'll come across some pilot whales,
and we'll head on back! So we're coming back at full speed and that boat, I'm estimating
you're talking about 30 MPH, so maybe 45 KPH, we're moving! And so as we're heading
back towards the island, a few minutes later one of the crew on the boat—there are two
other trainers with me, Naomi and Junior—and Naomi says 'I think I see him back there!'
What they discovered is just how fast Sully can swim. Even at full throttle, they couldn't
lose him, and he followed the boat all the way back to his pen. Why wouldn't he go
back to the wild?
Maybe he didn't want to be alone. So, George decided the only way they would ever get Sully
back to the wild would be to hook him up with a pod of pilot whales.
For weeks, every fisherman on the island, and even the coast guard, were keeping an
eye out for a pod of pilot whales for Sully. Soon they found a pod. George and the Sea
Aquarium staff led Sully out to the pod to make an introduction.
( voice off camera: ) "Go, go, go, go! Go man go. Go man. Go buddy go!"
Unfortunately, Sully had no interest. He looked at the pod, and swam right back to the boat.
Once again, he followed them straight back to his pen. Clearly, Sully had no intention
of going back to the wild, but nobody knew why.
Unfortunately, Sully couldn't stay in his pen. First of all it was designed to be temporary,
and the volunteers couldn't watch him forever. And, he was eating 60-70 pounds of fish every
day. The Sea Aquarium couldn't afford to keep feeding him! They had to find another
facility to take care of Sully. Someplace with the space and resources to handle a hungry
Fortunately, Sea World in San Diego offered Sully a permanent home. Soon George and his
staff were preparing Sully for his first airplane ride.
Using a sling, they loaded Sully onto a truck carrying a custom-made tank that would keep
Sully in the water for his entire journey—over 3,000 miles!
Soon the truck departed from the Curacao Sea Aquarium for the airport.
Sully was loaded onto a FedEx jet for his $100,000 private charter directly to San Diego.
George and several volunteers went along to help out. During the flight, they took turns
pouring water onto Sully to keep him cool and relaxed at 30,000 feet.
Six hours later, Sully arrived in San Diego, where they took him straight to Sea World.
George was there too, and helped get Sully acquainted with his new home. Soon he was
swimming around—none the worse for wear.
George: "Good Boy Sully"
In an effort to learn why Sully stranded, the Hubbs SeaWorld Marine Institute got together
with the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program to test his hearing. Using sophisticated gear,
they found the answer. Sully can't hear above 10 kHz. A normal pilot whale should
be able to hear up to at least 100 kHz. So basically, Sully is hard of hearing. And without
being able to hear those really high frequencies, he can't hunt using his echolocation in
the deep ocean. Without being able to catch anything to eat, Sully was slowly starving
Since Sully's life depends on being fed, he can never go back to the wild. It's a
good thing Sea World volunteered to take care of him.
I head out to San Diego to visit my buddy Sully, and as soon as I see the Shamu-mobile,
I know I'm in the right place!
Sea World is known for their incredible dolphin and whale programs that bring thousands of
people to appreciate life in the oceans.
But what many people don't realize is that Sea World also has a huge rehabilitation program
for stranded animals.
I catch up with Sully in one of the rehab tanks, far from the crowds out front. He smiles
for my camera. I wonder if he remembers me?
Jonathan: "We've been following his story."
Jonathan: "This is the completion of his story."
Soon I'm introduced to Jennifer Shorney, one of Sully's trainers.
Jen: "We all love Sully. Sully has a special place is everyone's heart."
Jonathan: "Is he a ham? He's hamming it up for the camera over here."
Jen: "Yes, yes, he absolutely is a bit of a ham."
Jonathan: "So tell me—what are you feeding him?"
Jen: "Sully gets a wide variety of fish. A big bulk of his base right now is squid,
but he's also getting some herring, he's learning to eat capelin as well as sardines,
so he's eating all different types of fish."
Jonathan: "Can I try feeding him?"
Jonathan: "Wow, so what do I do? Just a couple fish?"
Jen: "Yeah, just take a couple fish and toss them right on in! Perfect. He's not
particular about which way, front or back. You'll see him sometimes when he's rearranging
the food he'll definitely push out all the water. He gobbled those down real quick."
Jonathan: "So 65 pounds a day?"
Jonathan: "You're doing this a LOT."
Jen: "A lot. This is what we do!"
Jonathan: "How many times a day?"
Jen: "A Lot!"
( Sully blows mist onto Jonathan )
Jonathan: "Oh thanks buddy!"
Jen: "We're going to be stepping down numerous numerous times a day to him."
Jonathan: "Oh yeah, squid! Look at him, he's like 'ah ah ah I want the squid,
I want the squid!' Alright, here it comes!"
Jen: "Oh Sully, you're so good!"
Jen: "Sully's favorite time of the day, that he absolutely loves...he loves to be
rubbed down. So we call it the line of love, he loves it, and what we'll do is line ourselves
up back there and you'll see him, it's almost like a car wash, he'll go back and
forth and back and forth and just absolutely loves it."
I get the chance to join in on the line of love and give Sully a little rub.
Sully has put on over 200 pounds since arriving at Sea World—he's a growing whale, eating
65 pounds of fish and squid every day.
Jen: "So as you can tell, he's a pretty happy guy."
Jonathan: "Well how could he not be? He's got three ladies giving him a rub down!"
Jen: "I know! I know!"
Soon, its play time. To keep Sully intellectually stimulated, his trainers give him a rotating
selection of toys to play with. This one is his favorite. They call it the sausage links.
He likes to grab it in his mouth and pull it under water, which takes quite a bit of
Jonathan: "Pull that thing under"
Jen: "I know, right?"
Jonathan: "That thing must have 50 pounds of positive buoyancy"
Jen: "It's amazing and looks so easy for him. Doesn't it?"
He also likes his beach hat.
Jen: "He loves to collect his toys and bring them all together."
Jonathan: "He's like, 'this would be easier if I had thumbs!'"
Jen: I know, right, but he's quite good at maneuvering them all.
Jonathan: "Oh, for a thumb!"
Jen: "Oh Sully. What's going on? He's quite animated. There he goes"
Jonathan: "Like the last one?"
BOTH: "There he goes"
Jen: "Now we're moving. Now we got it."
So with his hearing damage, Sully just can't go back to the wild. And how lucky is he that
all the way from Curacao, he made it to Sea World in San Diego, probably the best place
in the world for him. And he's going to be taken care of for the rest of his life.
And get rub downs!
One day Sully will probably perform at Sea World, and anyone will be able to go meet
him. Sully owes his life to the people who vowed to save him: the staff at Sea World
San Diego and the Curacao Sea Aquarium. To these people, this isn't just some stranded
whale. He's Sully, the determined pilot whale who, like his namesake, refused to give
up even in the face of overwhelming odds.