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This story was originally published on February 5, 2018.

Since October, members of Shedd Aquarium’s Animal Response Teamhave done rotating two-week shifts at the Alaska Sea Life Center to help with the around-the-clock care of a rescued beluga whalecalf.

The hard work and long hours (often spent in waist-deep cold water) are paying off: The calf, named Tyonek (tye-OH-nehk) by ASLC staff, is passing critical milestones similar to those we mark to monitor the well-being of belugas born at Shedd, with slight differences because of his unique circumstances. He has learned to feed—from a bottle—and is increasingly proficient, leading to another milestone: putting on weight—more than 100 pounds to date. And he is bonding with his caretakers—a specially assembled team of experts in beluga care.

While the playful calf has more milestones to pass, his progress so far is doubly significant. Tyonek is the first stranded newborn beluga to be successfully rehabilitated. And he’s a member of the critically endangered Cook Inlet beluga population, which numbers approximately 328 animals. Whatever unfortunate event separated him from his mother, his luck changed just in time.

Animal Response Team

When wildlife are in urgent need, Shedd’s Animal Response Team is ready to help, working with conservation partners around the globe to rescue and rehabilitate animals.

Read More , on the Animal Response Team page
A large wood and plastic sign inside the Alaska Sealife Center featuring their name and logo, a circle containing several fishes and marine mammals.
Tyonek peeks his head above the water to peer at the photographer.

Dramatic rescue

On Sept. 30, wildlife biologists on a helicopter patrol over Alaska’s south-central coast spotted a beluga calf stranded and alone on a Cook Inlet mudflat. They landed to investigate. When it became clear that the calf was severely dehydrated and in no condition to be returned to the water, they contacted NOAA Fisheries, the arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration responsible for protecting marine mammals, and received an official go-ahead for a rescue.

Carefully positioning the 5-foot-4, 142-pound whale in the cargo area of the chopper, they airlifted him to Anchorage, where they were met by a transport team from the Seward-based ASLC, the only organization in the state authorized to rehabilitate stranded marine mammals.

While the 2- to 4-week-old calf began a regimen of electrolytes and formula every two hours in ASLC’s intensive care area, a call for assistance went out to accredited North American aquariums with expertise in caring for neonatal belugas. In addition to Shedd’s Animal Response Team, colleagues from Georgia Aquarium, Mystic Aquarium, SeaWorld and Vancouver Aquarium flew in to contribute to the calf’s 24-hour care.

Shedd’s executive vice president of animals, Tim Binder, cautioned in an early email, “These cases have a very low chance for success.” A stranded calf can be weak from lack of food, or it might never have nursed and gained protective antibodies from its mother’s milk, leaving it susceptible to infections. Previous attempts to save stranded newborn calves, one in Alaska, another in Québec, were not successful, although rescuers, including some now involved in Seward, gained valuable knowledge from the experiences.

“The talent base on the ground, supported by expert veterinarians and animal husbandry teams at all our facilities, places this animal in the care of leading experts—on a world-class level—giving it the best chance for survival.”

Tim Binder, vice president of animal care
Shedd expert Steve Aibel feeds rescued beluga calf Tyonek at Alaska SeaLife Center.
Tyonek being cared for in the Alaska Sea Life Center

For calf—and staff—every day is a victory

Within a week of his rescue, the calf had stabilized and was swimming on his own. His caregivers believe that he already knew how to nurse because, although his condition remained critical, he noisily sucked formula—a protein-packed puree of powdered milk substitute, salmon oil and herring filets—from a tube and soon graduated to a bottle fitted with a livestock nipple typically used to feed four-legged calves. As the little beluga became more adept at nursing, his consumption went up (two bottles per feeding) while the frequency of meals went down (to about six times a day).

As the days passed and the outlook for him became increasingly positive, the endearing calf was named Tyonek for an Alaska Native village near where he was found.

Tyonek the beluga rescue being cared for in the Alaska Sea Life Center

Little whale, big job

At the four-month point in his care, Tyonek is not only surviving but, at 255 pounds, gives every appearance of thriving. And his care team watches him closely every day, observing how he swims, timing his respiration rate, monitoring his food intake, analyzing blood and blowhole samples, checking his hearing, taking X-rays and ultrasounds, and even using an infrared camera to make thermal images of him to look for sore muscles or other soft-tissue injuries (none have been detected).

A major milestone for any beluga calf is weight gain. At first Tyonek’s “I.Sea.U.” pool water was kept at a tepid (for a beluga) 65 degrees so that his body could spend more calories on healing and growth than on generating heat. Using ultrasound scans, his care team members tracked his increasing blubber layer, enabling them to determine when they could slowly acclimate him, a degree or two at a time, to cooler water temperatures more typical of beluga habitat. By mid-November, Tyonek was moved full-time to an outdoor pool with 44-degree water. The larger pool gives him more room to swim as well as greater depth at one end to practice diving.

His caretakers are in and out his pool frequently, not only to monitor his condition but to also give him the social and tactile experiences he needs.

“No one can say ‘no’ to giving a baby beluga a nice massage!” says Shedd trainer Rochelle Pepper, who was at ASLC from Dec. 28 through Jan. 15. “We were rubbing his melon, giving him tongue tickles and getting him comfortable with body rubs. We also introduced new enrichment items, like medium-sized balls and carwash-strip ‘kelp,’ for him to interact with on his own.”

NOAA recently determined that, despite the excellent care he is receiving, Tyonek lacks the survival skills to survive on his own in the wild. Instead, the calf can help the Cook Inlet belugas as an ambassador for, and source of knowledge about, the critically endangered whales.

As for Shedd’s involvement, Steve Aibel, senior director of marine mammals, says, “We will be in Alaska for as long as we’re needed.”

Looking back at her part in Tyonek’s ongoing rehabilitation, Rochelle says, “This hands-on experience was amazing and so rewarding. It was wonderful to see how well Tyonek had progressed since he first arrived at the Alaska Sea Life Center. Watching him grow right before our eyes and learn how to dive, vocalize and interact with enrichment was so gratifying after hearing and seeing what he went through. Now he’s thriving and learning every day. He’s such a strong little guy.”

―Karen Furnweger, web editor