On Thursday, June 15, members of Shedd’s Animal Response Teambrought their expertise in working with beluga whalesto a daring binational rescue and relocation of a beluga whale that had apparently strayed from his herd and home waters in the St. Lawrence River in Québec.
The young male was literally up a creek, the much shallower waters of neighboring New Brunswick’s Nepisiguit River, many hundreds of miles from the St. Lawrence Estuary, where the world’s southernmost population of beluga whales lives year-round.
The whale, which was first spotted on June 2, appeared active but was in a threatening situation as retreating tides lowered the river’s level, making it unlikely he could swim back into the adjacent bay and ocean. Marine mammal experts were also concerned that the river couldn’t provide the food resources to support the 2- to 3-year-old whale.
Animal Response Team
Once Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) crafted a rescue plan, they contacted our Animal Response Team, sponsored by Dawn, as well as experts from Vancouver Aquarium and Canada’s Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM). The scientists from Shedd and Vancouver have more than 50 years of collective experience caring for beluga whales. Both aquariums support GREMM’s conservation research on the St. Lawrence belugas.
On short notice, Tim Binder, Shedd’s executive vice president of animals, and Kurt Heizmann, one of our marine mammals supervisors, were in New Brunswick, part of a 20-person animal care and health team that gently coaxed the 5-foot beluga into a net and then transferred him into a padded sling of the same design that Shedd has used to transport belugas. Slogging through knee-deep water, they carried the small whale from the river and took him by truck to a nearby airport for the 45-minute flight to the St. Lawrence Estuary. From the plane, the whale was moved to a pontoon raft, on which he was lowered into the water.
Scientists monitoring the whale since his release report that he has been seen socializing with other young belugas.
The operation was the first scientific rescue and release attempt for a beluga from the St. Lawrence Estuary population. This group is listed as endangered under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, similar to the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Human pressures, including heavy pollution and underwater noise, have caused the Great Lakes region’s unique beluga population to decline to fewer than 900 individuals, from an estimated 10,000 before 1885.
“It was a bold plan, and not without some risk,” Shedd’s Tim Binder said of the rescue effort, which was coordinated by DFO and GREMM. “We believed this animal to be a member of the endangered population, which means every individual is significant to the group’s overall sustainability and survival. We knew we had to respond quickly by lending our expertise and resources on the ground.” During his long career in animal care, Binder has assisted aquarium and zoo facilities around the world with animal transports. He has also applied noninvasive veterinary exam techniques developed at Shedd in a collaborative project to collect data on belugas in Bristol Bay, Alaska.
“We believed this animal to be a member of the endangered population, which means every individual is significant to the group’s overall sustainability and survival. We knew we had to respond quickly by lending our expertise and resources on the ground.”Tim Binder, vice president of animal care
At this time of year, the St. Lawrence Estuary belugas migrate farther west in the river, where groups of adults, juveniles and newborn calves socialize, feed and care for the young. Rescuers believe the rescued whale took a wrong turn, entered the Nepisiguit when the water level was higher and got stranded.
Before the whale was released into the estuary, he was fitted with a satellite tag that will keep researchers apprised of his movements to determine the success of the relocation.
Remarkable actions like this rescue are only possible with your support. You can get involved and be among the first to know about the Animal Response Team’s next effort by subscribing to our newsletter in the footer of this page.
―Karen Furnweger, web editor