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Necropsy held Friday for Georgia Aquarium’s whale shark

ATLANTA — Ralph gained fame — and helped draw millions of visitors to the Georgia Aquarium — as one of the first two whale sharks to be held in captivity in North America.
    On Friday came another first — this one sad and unexpected. The first necropsy on a whale shark in the United States was performed following Ralph’s sudden death Thursday night.
    Jeff Swanagan, the Georgia Aquarium’s executive director, said Friday’s goal was to learn from the death of the young 22-foot whale shark for the sake of other whale sharks.
    ‘‘While we’re saddened and obviously a bit emotional to do this, we have to put on our scientific hat and make sure we learn from this for the benefit of the other three animals in our care and share that information with others in Asia,’’ Swanagan said.
    Ralph’s death came less than two weeks after the death of Gasper, a beluga whale at the aquarium. Gasper suffered from a bone disease contracted before he was taken to the aquarium in 2005. Ralph had no known disease, and Swanagan said there is no connection between the two deaths.
    ‘‘It’s a part of nature,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s no set pattern, difficult to deal with and not fun but just part of our business.’’
    Swanagan said there is no certainty the examination of Ralph’s remains will explain the cause of his death.
    ‘‘It could be when they open the animal up and they look at its organs, they may see something real quick,’’ he said. ‘‘It could take weeks or it could be that none of the results are conclusive.’’
    The whale shark showed no sign of trouble in his normal examination two months ago, but Swanagan said he recently began swimming in unusual patterns and was not eating well.
    The aquarium staff moved the shark to another part of the tank after he stopped swimming and immediately began trying to revive him Thursday, but he died eight hours later, Swanagan said.
    The deaths of Ralph and Gasper should not come as a surprise, said Naomi A. Rose, a Washington, D.C.-based marine mammal scientist for The Humane Society of the United States.
    ‘‘When the aquarium opened, we said this was a bad idea,’’ Rose said. ‘‘I don’t want to be childish and say I told you so but I told them so. I said the same thing about Gasper.’’
    Added Rose: ‘‘I’m going to be very interested to see the results of the necropsy. My guess is they’re going to come up with ’We have no idea.’ They’re going to say that’s just nature.’’
    Rose conceded scientific knowledge can be gained from the necropsy.
    ‘‘I think they can learn something, but again is it worth sacrificing Ralph for?’’ Rose asked.
    Rose said she has not visited the Georgia Aquarium but said everything she has heard about the facility is positive.
    ‘‘It’s probably one of the best facilities in the country,’’ Rose said, adding her concern ‘‘is the general concept of holding these large animals in captivity.’’
    ‘‘I don’t think they failed Ralph in any way,’’ Rose said. ‘‘But the best care isn’t good enough, and that’s the bottom line for me.’’
    Swanagan said three whale sharks have lived for 10 years in an aquarium in Okinawa, Japan.
    ‘‘Their facility is two and a half times smaller than ours,’’ he said. ‘‘Our facility being larger and with the incredible support we have from University of Georgia’s veterinary college and the size of our clinic, we’re positioned like nobody to be able to care for these animals. I have no second doubts about that.’’
    Swanagan said 15 or more experts would take part in the necropsy, which he said was expected to last all day.
    ‘‘With our partnership with the University of Georgia’s veterinary college and other collaborating scientists, we’re going to gain a lot of information out of this,’’ he said.
    Following the procedure, the shark will be cremated, Swanagan said.
    Ralph and Norton, the aquarium’s other male whale shark, arrived in June 2005 from Taipei, Taiwan, where they had been destined to become seafood. They were joined a year later by two females, Alice and Trixie, in their 6 million gallon tank.
    They are the only whale sharks on display outside of Asia. Whale sharks are the world’s largest fish, growing more than 50 feet long.
    Swanagan said there are no plans to replace Ralph, who he said was about 12 years old.
    ‘‘I think the opportunity to rescue more animals is something we have to consider,’’ he said. ‘‘Our friends in Taiwan have a (harvesting) quota of 60 animals, soon to be reduced to 30 animals a year. If we were to approach them we could reduce that so maybe only 28 would be killed, those kind of options are out there. I can’t tell you today that’s a number one priority for us.’’
    Swanagan said the aquarium’s remaining three whale sharks ‘‘are swimming normally and we see no problems with them.’’
    The aquarium was open for normal business hours Friday. Swanagan said he has received ‘‘strong support’’ from visitors at the aquarium and from those who have posted notes on the aquarium’s Web site.
    ———
    On the Net:
    Georgia Aquarium, http://www.georgiaaquarium.org

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