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The Death of Churchill

The final days of a right whale caught in man's snares

In the spring of 2001, about 50 miles east of Cape Cod, a right whale was spotted swimming with ropes streaming out of its mouth and a deep cut over his rostrum. Researchers recognized the distinctive pattern of callosities on the whale’s chin and mandible as the markings of a male named Churchill. The Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass., quickly assembled a rescue team to try to disentangle the beleaguered whale.

Based on experiences with sedating smaller marine mammals, the team selected two drugs that might help Churchill cooperate during the rescue attempt. One was Midazolam, a sedative hypnotic used in the operating room for anesthesia; the other was Meperidine, a narcotic that physicians often prescribe for pain control. Because Churchill’s weight was estimated at more than 40 tons—500 times an average human—he required 1,000 milligrams of Midazolam and 10,000 milligrams of Meperidine. The drug regime was prepared by David Brunson, a veterinary anesthesiologist from the University of Wisconsin Veterinary School. The doses were less than those prescribed for people (by proportion of body weight) but enough, the team hoped, to slow the whale without compromising its ability to swim or breathe.

Because of Churchill’s thick layer of blubber, the scientists had to use an extra large syringe with a 12-inch needle. Unsure of the whale’s reaction, the team kept their inflatable boat at a safe distance and administered the drugs with a butane-powered automatic injector system—designed by Terrence Hammar of the WHOI Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering Department—which was attached to the end of a long cantilevered pole. Churchill didn’t fuss much, and the drugs seemed to calm the crippled whale.

But the disentanglement effort failed. For 100 days, anxious rescue workers used a satellite tag to follow the ailing Churchill as he wandered north to Cape Breton Island, then south again. The team made several more attempts to remove fishing gear. By late summer, observers noted that Churchill was emaciated and still hopelessly tangled.

On Sept. 16, 2001, the team stopped receiving satellite signals. Somewhere off the New Jersey coast, Churchill slipped beneath the waves for the last time.

Originally published: November 1, 2004