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    Haitang, the Lost Chinese Whale, Finally Swims to Freedom

    After a five-month rescue operation, the short-finned pilot whale has finally recovered from his injuries and been released back into the ocean.

    When he washed up on a beach in the tropical Hainan province back in January, Haitang the whale became something of a celebrity in China — the frantic effort to save his life receiving days of media coverage.

    Now, after five months of rest and recuperation in a local marine park, the short-finned pilot whale has finally recovered and returned home to the deep waters of the South China Sea.

    This is the first time Chinese conservation workers have managed to save the life of a stranded short-finned pilot whale, which are a second-class protected species in China due to their scarcity in the region.

    The rescue mission required a huge commitment of resources due to the whale’s sheer size. Known for their round foreheads and short snouts, adult short-finned pilot whales are typically 4-7 meters long and can weigh up to 3,000 kilograms.

    Haitang was in a terrible state when he was first spotted by tourists in early January. “We saw a black shadow on the beach nearby and were shocked by it,” Song Kewei, one of the group, told local media at the time. “It was bleeding and its fins were twitching.”

    The whale had injuries all over his body and was unable to swim independently. Later tests confirmed that he also had a severe lung infection, liver and kidney disorders, and was severely dehydrated. It’s unclear why he had strayed into shallow waters.

    Rescue workers managed to transfer the whale — whom they nicknamed Haitang after the name of the beach where he was found — to a nearby marine animal reproduction center, and then a grueling rehabilitation process began.

    Because of his severe injuries and huge bulk, Haitang was unable to float on his own and needed to be held up in the water at all times. Local surfers, divers, and mermaid instructors had to be enlisted to help monitor the giant whale around the clock.

    “Volunteers were needed to watch over him the whole time, holding him up to prevent him flipping and getting water in his respiration system,” Pu Bingmei, secretary at Blue Ribbon, the non-profit conservation organization that led the rescue effort, told state media.

    It was far from certain that the volunteers’ hard work would pay off. A similar effort to rescue a short-finned pilot whale in 2019 ended in failure. But Haitang gradually regained his strength, and by early May he was able to swim, retrieve food, and recognize other whales by himself.

    Haitang was cleared to return to the wild, and on Sunday rescue workers finally released him to the deep waters off Hainan. Scientists will continue to monitor his progress over the following days to ensure he is able to survive on his own.

    (Header image: The stranded short-finned pilot whale Haitang is transported to a research ship on Saturday and returns to sea at 6:15 am on Sunday, in Sanya, Hainan province, May 26, 2024. VCG)