While examining a bald eagle, two Alaskan fishermen happened upon something sleek and gray in the Bristol Bay surf. It was faintly clicking and whistling and seemed to be disoriented. At first, it swam away, but soon circled back to shore. Upon spotting it again, the fisherman contacted just the right person. Before long, marine specialists had arrived.
The Alaska SeaLife Center, a research and rehabilitation organization for sea animals, answered the call. When they arrived, they worked to stabilize the shiny gray mass – a baby beluga whale – then placed it on an air mattress with wet towels draped over him and airlifted him away.
“It was a nail-biting hour and a half,” SeaLife President and Chief Executive Tara Riemer Jones said. “They thought they lost him a couple of times.”
But they didn’t. While dehydrated, hypoglycemic and underweight when checked into the pool, he managed to survive his June 18th rescue. Now, according to his handlers, he’s recuperating very well; so well, in fact, that they’re calling him “a fighter.” And he’s definitely living up to that title.
The five-foot calf has now reached a wonderful weight of 115 pounds. He gives off some tentative whistles and clicks through his blowhole. He darts and swims through the pool with his handlers while awake, nuzzling them with his nose that seems to be stretched into a smile. Still, Jones cautions that this little guy still has a long way to go.
“Just like a baby in the NICU, it can go either way,” Jones said. “He’s on the path, but not out of the woods.”
Because of the rarity, specialists from all over the country have flown in to help with his recovery. He continues to need round-the-clock feeding and monitoring. They also work to keep him entertained with various pool toys. As of right now, it’s estimated that his care costs more than $2,000 per day. And while that cost may decrease with time, he will continue to live out the rest of his life in captivity because he is, according to the National Fishery Service, non-releasable.
Baby belugas generally spend the first two years of life with their mothers. It is during this time that babies learn how to survive in the wile. Additionally, they receive essential antibodies from their mother’s milk during the early stages of life. Without it, they do not have an immune system strong enough to sustain life in the wild.
Jones believes that this newborn baby beluga was separated from his mother just after birth during a fierce windstorm off the southwestern Alaska coast. As a result, he probably never drank his mother’s milk. As a result, he has little to no protection against disease. Additionally, he will never learn the life skills needed to survive in the ocean.
Eventually, if he makes a full recovery, he will be transferred to one of the six aquariums in the country with beluga populations. Perhaps he’ll be sent to one that has a younger whale buddy for him to frolic with. Or maybe they’ll find one that has a potential “motherly” whale who can take him under her fin until he’s old enough for adventures in the aquarium on his own. Either way, the handlers say they’re not naming him until he finds a new home. At that point, they know he’ll survive.
“We get attached to these little guys,” Bill Winhall, SeaWorld mammal curator who came and helped with the little whale for two weeks said. “When he swims by and rubs you, or when I rub him down, it reminds me of rubbing down my own dog. You know that feeling. ‘Good dog. Good dog.’ You can’t help but love them.”
Winhall also played a pretty big part in the little beluga’s recovery. Two years ago, he helped hand-raise a female beluga, Pearl, at SeaWorld when her mother, Ruby, rejected her. Special techniques and formulas that helped raise Pearl were also helped to save the rescue beluga.