A pregnant pause in San Antonio. Killer-whale births help spotlight sea mammals' plight

With as many as 45,000 visitors in a single day, Sea World of Texas must be ready for just about anything to happen - including a birth. But when the mother-to-be weighs 6,500 pounds and the awaited bundle of joy is expected to out-bulk the average NFL lineman, extraordinary measures are called for.

So with Sea World here awaiting the arrival of a baby killer whale, no average maternity ward will do: Give the expectant mother a 7 million-gallon saltwater tank, daily rubdowns, and all-you-can-eat salmon, mackerel, and squid - about 200 pounds a day.

In addition, she's under 24-hour surveillance, with doting attendants taking daily measurements of the mother-to-be's expanding girth.

With few captive births of the black-and-white killer whales on the books, Sea World officials here say they are adding to what is known about marine mammal propagation. Recently Sea World's fifth killer-whale birth took place before a rapt audience at its park in Orlando, Fla.; another was born earlier this year in San Diego.

``The killer whale is not an endangered species, but if we don't know something about the animal before that point, it may be too late,'' says Glenn Young, general curator of animal science at Sea World in San Antonio. ``I hope what we do results in a better understanding and appreciation for not only killer whales specifically, but all animals.''

There is little question that the killer whale Kandu's pregnancy is causing a stir in San Antonio and beyond. Calls come in to the park daily from people curious about the expectant mother's progress, while the mail is filled with suggested names for the baby.

Coming to term, as the San Antonio pregnancy does, on the heels of the hugely publicized rescue of two trapped gray whales off the northern Alaska coast, the interest is only heightened.

But for some environmentalists, there is growing concern that the attention heaped on individual animals and their predicaments may serve to deflect needed public awareness and action from larger issues of species endangerment.

They note, for example, that millions of dollars - and valuable nightly TV exposure - were lavished on the trapped gray whales, while whales are still being hunted down by some nations.

At the same time tens of thousands of dolphins, who have the misfortune of serving as a draw to schools of tuna, continue to be sought out by tuna fishermen as a guide to their catches, and then slaughtered along with the tuna in the nets. Little is said in the press about it.

And now along the Florida coasts a new danger faces sharks, whose fins are valued for soup, as trophies, and as a supposed aphrodisiac. With the shark meat fetching considerably less money than the fin itself, fishermen aren't bothering with the whole fish: The fins are cut off and the sharks are dumped back in the water to die.

``We've held 130 demonstrations so far this year'' to protest Iceland's continued whaling under a loophole in International Whaling Commission regulations, ``but not once have we gotten any real national press out of it,'' says Campbell Plowden, whale campaign coordinator for Greenpeace, the international environmental organization. ``Then two whales get trapped up in Alaska, and overnight I'm on `Good Morning America' and CNN.''

Mr. Plowden says the human compassion expressed over the plight of the whales in Alaska and the exposure to sea animals allowed by something like a killer-whale birth probably work in favor of organizations like his. ``Our mail is up more than four times since the whale incident,'' he says. But he adds that in his view the public interest can come at a price.

``If public awareness is generated by people seeing a killer whale giving birth, that's good,'' Plowden says. ``But that doesn't necessarily overcome what we see as the down side'' of keeping the animals in captivity.

Plowden says his organization generally opposes keeping cetaceans, or marine mammals, in captivity: in part because there is some evidence they don't do well there, he says, and also because the capturing process itself is ``traumatic'' for the animals.

``A benchmark of how a species is doing in captivity is whether it is willing and able to reproduce,'' Plowden said, noting that few killer whales have had successful captive births.

Sea World's Mr. Young says the small but growing number of successful killer-whale births counters that argument. He adds that, while he does not believe the capturing of live specimens is ``terribly traumatic,'' one of Sea World's goals is to reach the point where births of killer-whales already in captivity.end any need for captures.

The benefits those captures have made possible - public identification with marine mammals, education programs on species survival and environmental threats - ``far outweigh the negative side,'' he says.

``Certainly there's a difference between Sea World exhibiting Bottlenose dolphins for everyone's enjoyment and education,'' says Young, ``as opposed to fishermen drowning them in their nets.''

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