When an orphaned beluga whale calf was found alone and in distress in Cook Inlet, Alaska, marine mammal experts from around North America answered the call to help with the 4-week-old calf's round-the-clock care.
The beluga was taken to the Alaska SeaLife Center (ASLC) in Seward, Alaska, with caregivers from the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Vancouver Aquarium, Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, SeaWorld, and Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut immediately offering help to care for the (relatively) little guy.
The calf is part of the critically endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale population which, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), may once have had 1,300 members. The most recent estimate is that there are only about 328 individuals left.
The beluga is receiving 24-hour monitoring, as well as veterinary treatment from his team of expert caregivers.
"This calf is still receiving critical, around-the-clock care and we are proud to assist our partner institutions any time an animal is in need," said vice president of zoological operations at Georgia Aquarium, Eric Gaglione, in a statement. "We’re all committed to the animals in our care at our respective facilities, but we’re also committed to the wild populations of the animals in our ocean. Any time we can help these populations, whether it’s a beluga whale calf, a dolphin disentanglement, or a turtle rescue, our goal is to help the preservation of this species."
Here the calf suckles specially made formula through a tube. Listen to the sound as he slurps!
After only a few weeks eating from a tube, the orphan calf moved to a bottle, feeding every 3 to 4 hours. He was just recently named Tyonek after the village closest to the beach where he was found in September.
The whale's rescue
In late September, Noah Meisenheimer, an officer for NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement, was in a helicopter investigating a report of a dead beluga on the side of Cook Inlet, reports the Alaska Dispatch News. He spotted something gray, but couldn't tell if the animal was moving.
On the ground, Meisenheimer found the calf with some sun-damaged skin, but it was alive. With permission from NOAA's Office of Protected Resources (necessary when an animal is endangered), he tried nearly a dozen times to move the calf into deeper water, but the animal kept turning back to shore.
The pilot flew to get Dr. Carrie Goertz, ASLC's veterinarian, who had to decide whether to keep trying to get the beluga to swim away or to euthanize him if his injuries were too severe. Instead, she opted for a rescue.
"I felt that he had zero chance of survival in Cook Inlet. And I felt that at least initiating the attempt of a rescue, that that wasn't going to be cruel and unusual," Goertz told the Dispatch News.
So Tyonek made the 30-minute ride to ASLC in a body bag, which was the only workable transport equipment the team had on hand.
"The animal was very relaxed and soothed, and that could've been from the vibration of the helicopter," Meisenheimer said.
Assembling the team
Although the calf's energy levels fluctuate, he does have playful moments. (Photo: Alaska SeaLife Center/Facebook)
Knowing that caring for an injured, orphaned baby beluga would be an ominous task, the call went out to aquarium professionals around the country, with help arriving as quickly as the next day.
They are working together feeding, caring and diagnosing his medical issues. When he's felt well enough, there's been enrichment and play time.
The question is whether Tyonek may be released back into the wild at some point.
"NOAA is asking for a little more time to come up with what the criteria would need to be to count this animal as a releasable animal. So we'll work with them," Brett Long, husbandry director for the ASLC, said.