A stranded Beluga Whale calf, struggling to survive on its own, was rescued from Cook Inlet, Alaska on Saturday, September 30. The male calf is undergoing intensive around-the-clock care at the Alaska SeaLife Center with the help of Marine Mammal experts from around North America. The calf is a member of the critically endangered Cook Inlet Beluga Whale population, which has declined to approximately 328 individuals left in the wild.
The solitary calf, estimated to be four weeks old, was spotted alone and distressed by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Law Enforcement (NOAA OLE) Enforcement Officer and Department of Public Safety / Alaska Wildlife Troopers Pilot returning from a helicopter patrol. No adult Belugas were seen in the area. Under authorization from NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program (MMHSRP), the NOAA enforcement officer and the Alaska Wildlife Troopers pilot attempted unsuccessfully to encourage the animal back in the water. NOAA helped coordinate the transport of an Alaska SeaLife Center veterinarian to the site to assess the animal's condition. A decision was made to transport the Beluga calf to Anchorage for subsequent transfer to the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward.
The calf is currently receiving treatment in the Alaska SeaLife Center’s I.Sea.U. “The calf appeared to have been stranded for several hours and was in a weakened condition; without evidence of major physical trauma. He is able to swim on his own and is breathing regularly, which are very positive signs. However, there are tremendous hurdles ahead. Because this animal is extremely young, there is a high risk of complications,” said Dr. Carrie Goertz, DVM, ASLC Director of Animal Health. With any cetacean [Whale or Dolphin] rescue, particularly with a neonatal calf, survival is estimated at less than 10 percent.
When a stranded animal arrives at the Alaska SeaLife Center, the first goal is to rehydrate the animal. Aminoplex is a formula that helps animals when they are in a severe state of dehydration. This is the first fluid the calf received upon arrival at the Center’s I.Sea.U. The calf was 64 inches long and weighed 142 pounds when it arrived at the Center.
The Beluga calf has graduated from drinking Aminoplex to a milk matrix with fish and antibiotics added. The calf actively suckles his formula, but the team is still determining the best way to deliver his meals. A bottle does not allow the calf to gain proper suction. They have found that the calf is able to suckle better from the tip of a wide tube inserted just inside his mouth. (This is not traditional “tube feeding,” in which food is delivered directly to the stomach via tube and the animal receives the food passively, without suckling.)
To best care for this endangered calf, Alaska SeaLife Center pulled together a team of first responders, which included on-site Marine Mammal experts with support from five North American aquariums with professional experience caring for Beluga Whales. Together, veterinarians and Marine Mammal experts at Alaska SeaLife Center, Georgia Aquarium, Vancouver Aquarium, Shedd Aquarium, SeaWorld, and Mystic Aquarium bring decades of hands-on experience caring for, raising, studying and transferring vital knowledge about Beluga Whales, including this critically endangered population. Several of the institutions operate Marine Mammal rescue centers or animal response teams and are deployed when a cetacean requires intervention to give it the best chance at survival – considered even more important when working collaboratively to rehabilitate a member of a critically endangered population.
“As Alaska’s only Marine Mammal rescue and rehabilitation center, our team of experts are responsible for the care of a variety of critical wildlife response situations across the state. To be able to have our expert colleagues assist us with this critically endangered Beluga calf is a true testament to the Marine Mammal community’s commitment to caring for and preserving wild cetacean populations,” said Tara Riemer, President and CEO at the Alaska SeaLife Center. “To witness everyone come together for this very young calf is heartwarming as he is receiving the best 24-hour care from experts across North America.”