Tyonek, the six-month old Cook Inlet beluga whale calf rescued from a mudflat in Sept. 2017, was transported from Seward’s Alaska SeaLife Center to his new home at a SeaWorld theme park in San Antonio, Texas on Thursday.
The first leg of Tyonek’s journey to Texas was aboard a truck that left Seward for Anchorage around 6 a.m. Thursday morning, said SeaLife Center President Tara Riemer. Tyonek rode in a partially-filled tank, suspended from a stretcher — a device that SeaLife Center staff had previously used to weigh him, and which they’d spent weeks further acclimating him to by feeding him in it as well, Riemer said. Two SeaLife Center staffers, Director of Animal Health Dr. Carrie Goertz and Husbandry Director Lisa Hartman, accompanied Tyonek to Texas. Riemer said they’d reported that the journey had been a calm one — for the beluga at least.
“What I heard from the staff is that is was more stressful on the staff than it was on Tyonek,” Riemer said.
Arriving in Anchorage, Tyonek was loaded aboard a charter plane bound for San Antonio. It was night in Texas when the plane landed, and a vehicle carried the whale from the airport to SeaWorld with a police escort to control traffic, said Chris Bellows, SeaWorld San Antonio Vice President of Zoological Operations. Upon arrival, Tyonek swam into a pool much like the one he left 4,000 miles away.
“When we put him into the pool, we had folks waiting for him,” Bellows said. “Lisa (Hartman) was there, and obviously he’s very familiar with her … He checked everything out, and we then offered him a bottle, and he gobbled that down — obviously his appettite was good. We had a good interaction with him, and then we said ok, let’s let him rest a little bit.”
During a helicopter patrol on Sept. 30, 2017, an Alaska Wildlife Trooper and a federal enforcement officer spotted Tyonek stranded on a west Cook Inlet mudflat in Trading Bay, near the whale’s namesake village. When the calf was transported to the Alaska Sealife Center in Seward and treated in their veterinary facility, he became the first Cook Inlet beluga — an endangered population estimated at around 340 individuals — to survive in human care. In addition to SeaLife Center staff, the beluga’s caretakers included others with beluga experience sent from SeaWorld, Georgia Aquarium, Shedd Aquarium, Vancouver Aquarium and Mystic Aquarium.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — the federal agency with authority to manage Cook Inlet’s endangered beluga population — decided in January that Tyonek’s lack of social and survival skills make him dependent on humans, and that he couldn’t be released into the wild. When NOAA announced in early February that SeaWorld San Antonio would be Tyonek’s home, it was in part because it had “the most appropriate social group to integrate Tyonek, comprising of several mature females that may act as surrogate mothers as well as two young male calves that will provide additional companionship for him as he continues to grow,” NOAA spokesperson Kate Brogan said at the time.
The nine other belugas at SeaWorld San Antonio consist of four adult females, two adult males and three juvenile males, including one, named Innik, roughly the same age as Tyonek. Five of the San Antonio belugas were born in captivity. The others come from the Hudson Bay area, Bellows said.
When Tyonek eventually leaves his solitary pool, he’ll be introduced to the other whales gradually. Riemer said a usual process for introducing social marine mammals to new groups uses a tank with a transparent divider, through which the animals can see and hear one another before being able to physically interact. Bellows said Tyonek’s first acquaintance would be “probably one of the older females who has shown a kind of surrogate behavior in the past, and has had calves and has experience with younger animals.” The others will be introduced gradually after that.
Being a Cook Inlet beluga will make Tyonek’s life at SeaWorld somewhat different than that of his podmates. Since the Cook Inlet belugas were declared endangered in 2008, the Endangered Species Act, as administered by NOAA, has put legal limits on human interactions with them. Those limits still apply in captivity, excluding the possibility of Tyonek being trained for performaces or participating in SeaWorld San Antonio’s beluga interaction program, in which visitors swim with the whales.
“He will not be doing any performances or anything like that,” Bellows said. “But whether he’s in the pool area or not, we still want to be able to tell his story… The Cook Inlet population — obviously the numbers are dwindling, and we want to get people engaged. Even in simple things like recycling or using less energy, or in issues, how people vote.”
Even before Tyonek’s arrival, Cook Inlet played a peripheral role in SeaWorld San Antonio’s messaging about beluga conservation. One of Tyonek’s new podmates — a year-old male born at SeaWorld San Antonio — is named Kenai in an attempt to raise awareness of the endangered population.
Meanwhile in Seward
Staff at the SeaLife Center spent a total of 159 days giving 24-hour care and observation to the beluga. With his departure, Riemer said the staff is looking forward to a change of pace. Even before Tyonek’s arrival, the center’s population of rescued otters, seals and seabirds had included animals that needed 24-hour attention. That’s been the case for about a year, Riemer said, but no longer.
During his time in Seward Tyonek not only recovered from the sunburn, infections and collapsed lung left from his stranding, but also nearly doubled his weight from 140 pounds to 260 pounds, consuming an average of 1.2 gallons of formula a day, according to a SeaLife Center press release.
In addition to getting healthier and heavier, Riemer said the staff also noticed Tyonek getting noisier. When he arrived, the then-month old calf was silent, she said. At some point care-takers noticed Tyonek moving his “melon” — a nickname for the bulge of a beluga’s forehead, actually an ovoid of adipose tissue sensitive to the echoes by which belugas navigate their dim underwater environments. Belugas are able to adjust the melon’s shape to focus their echolocation. As Tyonek was learning this skill the SeaLife Center got permission from NOAA to play recorded beluga sounds in his tank. After that, he began “kind of finding his voice,” Riemer said.
“When he discovered he could make sounds, and he was really sort of experimenting,” Riemer said. “Like a human baby starting to scream or babble… (His sounds) weren’t necessarily in reaction to anything. He definitely had some angry sounds. When he was hungry, and he saw people coming, he would definitely let you know.”
Tyonek’s departure, Riemer said, “was bittersweet.”
“We’re happy he’s in his new home and able to interact with other belugas, but we’ll miss him,” she said.
Reach Ben Boettger at firstname.lastname@example.org.