Wednesday, November 5, 2003

Kewalo scientists
and staff mourn
death of dolphin

The research mammal died Sunday
at age 27 after various illnesses

Researchers and staff at the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory are mourning the death of one of their most lovable and best-known residents, a 27-year-old Atlantic bottlenose dolphin.

Akeakamai died Sunday night surrounded by friends who "hugged her, kissed her, shed tears and stroked her gently," said Louis Herman, the University of Hawaii psychologist who founded and heads the facility.

"For all of her existence with us she has been sort of a groundbreaking dolphin in terms of what we've been able to discover about cognitive and communicative abilities," he said.

Akeakamai the dolphin had a novel procedure performed for a tumor on Aug. 16.

Herman brought Akeakamai, which means "lover of wisdom" in Hawaiian, and Phoenix, another female dolphin, to the laboratory from the Gulf of Mexico 25 years ago. Then about 1 1/2 years old, they've contributed significantly to scientific knowledge of dolphin intelligence, sensory perceptions and language.

Ake, as she was called, also added to medical knowledge during a five-year struggle with cancer of the mouth. Dr. Carolyn McKinnie, the lab's veterinarian, tried various treatments, but the tumor could not be eliminated.

So on Aug. 16, the dolphin underwent a novel medical procedure performed at the laboratory by Dr. John Lederer, medical director of the Nae'a Radiation Oncology Department at the Queen's Medical Center.

He treated the tumor with brachytherapy -- implanting radioactive seeds into a tumor site. He uses this technique for prostate patients, but it had never been done on an animal.

Herman said the tumor "was definitely regressing" but some complications occurred, partly associated with the long-term antibiotic treatment needed to guard against bacterial invasion. He said the dolphin had a particular strain of E. coli susceptible to only two antibiotics.

"We did manage to put that under control," he said.

However, he said she grew weaker because of "general stresses she was undergoing as we attended to this and that medical condition."

"At the end, she began to experience difficulty in breathing," he said.

A few weeks ago, Hiapo, the male dolphin, "got a little rambunctious and gave her a swipe with his tail," Herman said. This caused a little internal bleeding and fluid collected in her chest cavity, making it difficult for her to inflate her lungs, he said.

He said he got a call about 5:30 a.m. Sunday to go to the laboratory. Ake was in a channel between the tanks and the staff gave her oxygen by holding it over her blowhole as she breathed, he said.

"Throughout the day she sat in the channel with her head in my lap or with other friends here. ... She was such an incredibly strong animal and so much in all our hearts, we wanted to give her every chance."

At 6 p.m., he said he made the "hard decision" and the group agreed. "We all gathered around, said our last aloha, and people were hugging each other, crying one each other's shoulders."

She was given a sedative and "just went to sleep," he said. A necropsy done Sunday night showed the cause of death was an accumulation of large amounts of fluid interfering with her inflation, he said.

"The brachytherapy seemed to be doing its job. The tumor had quite regressed. She's leaving us with that legacy," showing the technique can be used to treat other dolphins, he said.

He said Ake will be cremated and her ashes returned to the ocean in a private ceremony.

Herman said the lab has received calls and flowers from marine labs and researchers all over the world. "It is just incredible how Akeakamai touched people. ... They are shocked and saddened by her passing."


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