By Heidi Zemach for SCN
The young male Beluga whale calf that was rescued from the shore near the Diamond O fish cannery in remote South Naknek near Bristol Bay last Monday, having become separated from his mother during a storm, has been getting expert round-the-clock attention at the Alaska SeaLife Center for the past week. A beluga calf that young is like a baby in the neonatal intensive care unit in that it is pre-disposed to several medical complications, such as infection, or problems with its digestive system that would do best on its own mothers’ milk rather than a nutritional formula substitute. So it is in quarantine, and under very careful observation, said ASLC President and CEO Tara Reimer Jones. Since his arrival in Seward Monday night, the calf has been making a lot of progress, swimming and breathing on its own, but staff and a host of national beluga whale experts who dropped everything to fly to to ASLC to help out, have been taking things one day at a time. They are still tube-feeding it a nutritional formula while trying to encourage it to take a bottle.
It’s the first time that a beluga has ever been cared for at ASLC, or even any whale for that matter, said Jones, although the center has cared for two rescued porpoises, cetaceans which belugas are in fact more similar to than whales. Neither of those porpoises survived, but they had both been injured, while this beluga has no apparent health problems, she said. Rather, it is just a very young orphan.
As soon as word got out that the 110 pound beluga, two or three days old when discovered, was on its way to Seward, six veterinarians/ marine mammal care-givers from for different accredited aquariums with experience with captive belugas came to help out. They are from the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, from two of the three Sea World’s, and from Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. They have been intensively caring for the young beluga, providing it with regular feedings, walking it around its holding tank so that it won’t get scraped from the sides of the tank, and creating different pathways so it can discover new routes rather than circling the tank endlessly.
Eventually, it will be transferred to another facility selected by the National Marine Fisheries Service, where it will live out its life alongside a group of other captive belugas, as requirements mandate for these extremely social animals. Currently, there are 34 belugas held in captivity at seven accredited institutions in North America and Canada.
While there has been much rejoicing expressed in the media over this rescue story, there also are the inevitable critics of holding species captive at institutions. Even the lyrics to the popular American children’s song ‘Baby Beluga’ that Raffi sings say, “Baby Beluga in the deep blue sea, swims so wild and swims so free.”
This beluga, however would not have lived had it not received the usual intensive two-year training and nurturing period that beluga calves traditionally spend with their mothers in the ocean according to the experts. “This baby would not have survived in the wild, and it has a great deal to offer to all the people of the United States in terms of outreach and understanding about belugas,” Jones said. Wherever the national marine fisheries service choses for it to go, its very presence and the public adulation it will receive will enable the institution to educate people more about the species, and hopefully make them care more about our oceans, and conserving these belugas, she said.
Also, Jones believes it will be well cared for. To be accredited by Association of Zoos and Aquariums, AZA, and the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, these institutions must meet standards that greatly exceed the Animal Welfare Act, which is the minimum regulations in the U.S. for caring for these particular animals, she said: “These animals are considered a very high value to the institutions that hold them.”
Although the beluga whale is only available for public viewing at ASLC on a live monitor by those who take a special Behind-The-Scenes tour, the visiting public can learn more about belugas generally from an engaging new ASLC exhibit about the Cook Inlet Belugas, which opened on June 8, World Oceans Day. It features an oral history study of belugas led by former SeaLife center CEO Dr. Ian Dutton, funded by a grant by the Kenai Peninsula Borough. Unlike the thriving Bristol Bay belugas, of which the baby is a member, Cook Inlet Belugas are now listed as Endangered by the federal government.
Dr. Lori Polasek also conducted a behavioral observation field study of the Upper Cook Inlet belugas last year, filming them and their behaviors via live remote cameras from shore. Excerpts of those videos are also part of the exhibit.