NEW YORK -- Mitik has left the building.
Last week, the New York Aquarium's walrus calf, who was beloved -- but never glimpsed -- by many New Yorkers, left for Texas, where he will be sitting out the aquarium's repair and renovation, expected to last two years.
Mitik had arrived in Brooklyn as a 15-week-old orphan from Alaska with myriad health problems, just weeks before Hurricane Sandy damaged much of the aquarium in 2012.
Now the aquarium, which is part of the Wildlife Conservation Society, is embarking on major construction projects, including continued repairs from the hurricane. And officials there decided that Mitik would fare better at SeaWorld San Antonio, where on Tuesday it was 64 degrees, compared to the teens and dropping in New York City.
"It's a positive move for him, and it's also a positive move for the aquarium because it allows us to work on the life support system in 'Sea Cliffs' " -- the New York Aquarium's marine mammal exhibit, said Jon Forrest Dohlin, vice president and director of the aquarium. "We made the right choice to move him to an area where long-term he'll be in a stable position."
The aquarium says Mitik will return, however. "That is definitely our plan, to bring him back," Dohlin said.
But his sudden departure means that visitors to the aquarium will never have the chance to see him as a youngster, with the seemingly tender expression that was captured in published photographs after his arrival. Weighing 234 pounds when he arrived in Coney Island, Mitik tipped the scales at 700 pounds before shipping out to San Antonio aboard a FedEx cargo jet on Jan. 14.
During Hurricane Sandy, seawater inundated the New York Aquarium. Five of its seven buildings sustained major damage, and it remained closed for seven months. After it reopened late last May, only about half the exhibits were on public view as repairs continued.
Earlier this month, the aquarium broke ground on a long-planned construction project that had been delayed by the hurricane: Ocean Wonders: Sharks! The 57,000-square-foot facility will house more than 115 species of marine wildlife, including sharks and rays, and is expected to open sometime in 2016.
But the construction that would have had a potentially negative impact on Mitik centered on lingering issues from the hurricane. Sea Cliffs, where the aquarium's two existing adult female walruses live, needed upgrades to its circulation and temperature controls. Other exhibits and structures that will undergo hurricane-related reconstruction include Alien Stingers, Explore the Shore and the cafe.
The Sea Cliffs construction, which should be completed by the opening of Ocean Wonders, will involve draining the pools in the outdoor exhibit and moving the two walruses, Kulu and Nuka, to a holding area. Meanwhile, Mitik, who has remained behind-the-scenes in the aquarium's hospital since his arrival, had just reached the stage where he was ready to finally meet, and begin socializing with, the two female walruses.
"Mitik is at the end of his weaning cycle and his tusks are just coming in, and we want him to have a lot of room and a lot of enrichment," Dohlin said.
"Our two existing walruses are very socialized together and they are acclimated to the system," he added. "They move back and forth between exhibit and holding areas with a minimum of trouble. But with a young animal, it's not great for his socialization to be pulled back and forth like that. And it can get crowded in the back of the house."
Mitik flew to San Antonio with a veterinarian and two keepers, one of whom has stayed at the Texas aquarium to assist with the handoff. "She is his primary keeper, and she's someone he's very bonded to," Dohlin said. "It helped make his transition as seamless as possible."
Mitik seems to have adjusted to his new home, despite the sudden shift in climate.
"Mitik is acclimating well to his new surroundings," said Brian M. Carter, a spokesman for SeaWorld San Antonio. "He's eating well, and our trainers have been delighted by his calm and gentle demeanor."
When Mitik arrived in Brooklyn in mid-October 2012, he was suffering from bladder problems and could not take a bottle, requiring both a catheter and a feeding tube.
But he quickly improved, and before he left for Texas, his diet consisted almost entirely of solid food. "All of his health issues are resolved," Dohlin said. "His tusks have come through, and a dentist has looked at him and said they are in perfect shape."
In San Antonio, Mitik will now begin to socialize with a 26-year-old female walrus named Takena, one of two adults in the collection there.
"He's got a big pool and has plenty of room for physical growth and exercise," said Dohlin, who has fielded reports from the keeper who stayed with Mitik in Texas. "But he's making a funny transition from understanding that he's a human to understanding that he's a walrus.
"During his first look at a walrus, he was like, 'What's that?'"
By LISA W. FODERARO
The New York Times