A male beluga calf, estimated between two and four weeks old, became the first member of Cook Inlet’s endangered beluga population under human care after being rescued on Sept. 30 from a stranding on the west inlet shore.
An Alaska Wildlife Trooper and federal law enforcement officer Noah Meisenheimer of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries division were on patrol in a helicopter when they spotted the stranded whale on the shore of Trading Bay on Saturday, September 30. They saw no adult belugas in the area, according to a joint press release from NOAA and the Alaska SeaLife Center.
Cook Inlet belugas — one of Alaska’s five distinct beluga popuations — declined because of unregulated subsistence hunting from a 1979 population of 1,293 to today’s estimated 340 individuals. They were protected by the Endangered Species Act in 2008, putting their management under NOAA jurisdiction.
When Meisenheimer and the Trooper pilot tried to return the beluga calf to the water, he re-beached himself — a common behavior of stranded whales. After the Alaska SeaLife Center sent a veterinarian to the site, they decided to transport the calf to the SeaLife Center’s marine animal intensive care facility — the I.Sea.U — via Anchorage’s Lake Hood Floatplane Base. After reconfiguring the helicopter’s interior to hold the calf, they took off.
“…Once on the ground in the Department of Public Safety hangar at Lake Hood, we were able to keep water on the calf until the Alaska Sea Life Center transport team arrived,” Meisenheimer stated in the press release.
SeaLife Center Director of Animal Health Dr. Carrie Goertz estimated that the calf had been beached for several hours, though upon arriving at the SeaLife center he was able to swim on his own and had no signs of major physical trauma.
Since then, nine people with beluga experience have flown to the SeaLife Center from aquariums including Georgia Aquarium, Shedd Aquarium, Vancouver Aquarium, SeaWorld and Mystic Aquarium to aid in treating the calf. Of these, three or four at a time keep watch in the calf’s quarantine room 24 hours a day. Every two hours they feed him from a tube (having found it works better than a bottle) with an electrolyte formula to help him recover from dehydration. They also watch for more serious problems.
“His biggest challenges are things we don’t even know what they are yet,” said Alaska SeaLife Center President Tara Riemer. “We are using a lot of diagnostics to keep an eye on his condition so if anything changes, we know as soon as possible.”
Unaccustomed to direct sunlight, stranded whales frequently suffer sunburn. Internal injuries can also occur outside the whale’s buoyant natural environment when organs start to collapse under the whale’s body weight. The SeaLife Center’s veterinary staff and the other workers are watching for these and other problems with ultrasound exams, blood samples, and blowhole cultures, as well as administering antibiotics to pre-empt infections that could take hold in the animal’s weakened state. Another job is acclimating the calf to human contact.
“Sometimes people are in the pool getting that diagnostic information from him, other times they’re just keeping an eye on him,” Riemer said. “Because the diagnostic procedures require people in the pool, we want him to be comfortable with people. So from a behavioral standpoint, you don’t want to get in the pool only when you’re going to do something with him. You want people in the pool to not be a negative — so sometimes they’re just in the pool letting him swim around them. Belugas tend to sluff off a lot of skin at this time, so sometimes they’re giving him a rub-down to help that skin come off. Sometimes they’re just kind of hanging out and getting a good look at him.”
On Thursday night Riemer herself was one of the watchers in the quarantine room from 8 p.m to midnight. Though she’s seen adult belugas at an aquarium, Riemer said she’s never been so close to a calf. In Cook Inlet, not many have. Under the Endangered Species Act, NOAA permits the work researchers and recovery workers do with Cook Inlet belugas. Un-permitted contact can be punished as harassment with fines from $1,000 to $10,500.
“Even though I’ve spent about 14 years at the Alaska SeaLife Center in a variety of roles, anytime I actually get up close to an animal, it’s an amazing experience,” Riemer said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a beluga or an octopus or a puffin. It’s still amazing to me.”
At this point, Riemer said, the SeaLife Center’s only goal is keeping the calf alive. If he survives, his long-term future will be decided by NOAA.
“The two basic options are trying to release it, or NOAA would determine that the animal is unreleasable,” Riemer said.
Though neither Riemer nor NOAA spokesperson Julie Speegle ruled out the possibility of eventual release, Riemer said it’s never been done before for a calf of this age. Though their typical weaning age is unknown, belugas in the wild have been observed to nurse up to the age of two.
The SeaLife Center has a pool built to hold an adult beluga, “but there was never any expectation that we would do that on a regular basis — it’s more for this type of emergency response,” Riemer said, adding that belugas are social animals who live best with other belugas — making a solitary future at the SeaLife Center undesirable for the calf.
Before the beluga became a sudden priority at the SeaLife Center, Riemer said her mind had been on the budget. A private nonprofit, the SeaLife Center uses grant funding to support its animal rescue, though that source has shrunk this year — one grant, Riemer said, by 25 percent. The SeaLife Center’s fiscal year started on Sunday, the day after the beluga arrived.
“This is well above and beyond what we’ve planned for,” Riemer said. “… While we’re not making decisions on what we’re doing based on funds, we do have some of our development staff that are looking at grant opportunities, and we’re more than willing to accept donations from individuals and corporations that are interested in supporting this animal, because it is going to be quite costly for us.”
According to NOAA’s most recent stranding report, an average of nine Cook Inlet belugas per year have been stranded between 2000 and 2016, with numbers ranging from 15 in 2007 to three in 2012. In addition to the recently-found calf, nine — all dead — have been found on Cook Inlet’s shore in 2017.
The calf is the second to find shelter at the SeaLife Center. The first — believed to be the first beluga calf rescue in the United States — was a Bristol Bay beluga found after a storm near Naknek’s Diamond O Cannery in June 2012. The SeaLife Center estimated it was 2 days old and believed it was a premature birth. This beluga “ended up dying from massive infection,” Riemer said.
“We found out late in the process that it had never nursed from its mother,” Riemer said. “So it never got any of the colostrum that contains a lot of the immunological protectants that young get passed down from their mothers, so that totally made sense about the level of infection in that animal. We were treating that animal with antibiotics from day one. This animal, because it’s about a month old, had to have nursed from its mother, so that gives a more positive outlook. But because we don’t know why this animal stranded, we don’t know if something’s going to come out later that’s a bigger problem.”