July 9, 2012

Rescued Baby Beluga Whale Fighting For Life

A baby male beluga whale, discovered by a pair of Alaskan fishermen after it got separated from its mother shortly after its birth, remains under 24-hour care as marine mammal specialists from throughout the country continue to help nurse the newborn back to health.

Staff members at the Alaska SeaLife Center research and rehabilitation center in Seward, Alaska -- where the calf is currently recovering -- told Mark Thiessen of the Associated Press (AP) that the whale is doing well.

However, the creature is not in the clear just yet -- experts at the center are concerned that its immune system will be underdeveloped due to the fact that it has been unable to nurse.

"Just like a baby in the NICU, it can go either way," SeaLife President and Chief Executive Tara Riemer Jones told Los Angeles Times reporter Laura J. Nelson on Friday. "He´s on the path, but not out of the woods."

The beluga calf was found by the fisherman on June 18 after they had stopped to examine a bald eagle. It was "dehydrated and disoriented" when they found it, Nelson said, and after making a few phone calls, the two men contacted SeaLife, who placed the calf on an air mattress, covered him in wet towels, and had him airlifted to a safer location.

Jones called it a "nail-biting hour and a half," telling Nelson that the rescue team thought they had lost the whale on a couple of occasions. Thus far it has survived, thanks to the assistance of experts from the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta and SeaWorld in San Diego, as well as constant care that costs an estimated $2,000 per day, the Times reported on June 6.

The newborn calf was believed to be just two days old when it was discovered, and Jones told Nelson that they believe it was separated from its mother following a ferocious windstorm along the southwestern coast of the state. Since it has never received its mother's milk, it lacks antibodies that would help boost its immunity and is currently extremely susceptible to illness.

"Until his weight improves and his immune system stabilizes, two marine mammal workers remain with the calf at all times. To keep him alert and entertained, they use the whale version of pool toys: foam noodles, plastic kelp and weighted balls," Nelson said. "When he´s tired, he swims slowly, one side of his brain asleep. When he´s alert, he darts in circles around his handlers, nuzzling them with his rubbery skin, his broad nose stretched in what looks like a smile."

"The whale will live in captivity," she added. "The National Fishery Service calls him non-releasable: Because he isn´t growing up in the wild, he simply wouldn´t have the skills to survive. Six aquariums in the country have beluga populations, and officials will analyze which environment will be most appropriate: one with a younger whale to buddy around with, perhaps, or one with a maternal figure who can take the calf under her fin."