The Shedd Aquarium helped a lost beluga whale, only two or three years old, find his way home this week.
Two members of the Shedd’s animal care team, along with scientists, veterinarians and animal care experts from the Vancouver Aquarium and the University of Montreal, rescued and relocated the whale in Canada.
The whale — part of the endangered St. Lawrence Estuary population of belugas near Quebec — was found alone, hundreds of kilometers from his herd.
The 20-person rescue team — led by Canada’s Fisheries and Oceans Department and Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals — coaxed the whale into a net from the Nepisiguit River near Bathurst, New Brunswick, earlier this month.
Kurt Heizmann, who has helped care for the seven well-known belugas at the Shedd, helped capture and carry the whale to a charter plane the team used to take him back to the St. Lawrence Estuary. The team simulated a marine environment by pouring cold water on the piece of foam used to transport the beluga, Heizmann said.
“It’s part adrenaline,” he said of the rescue. “But at that time there’s this focus on what you’re doing and what the animal is doing and what your next step is.”
The beluga likely veered from his original path because of rising tides. Human pollution contributes to the endangerment of the St. Lawrence Estuary population, scientists said.
Beluga whales — the beloved “canaries of the sea” — survive best within a herd, experts say.
“If we’re helping out the belugas, we’re helping out the ecosystem and the general population as a whole,” said Heizmann.
Belugas are salt-water animals; they can develop health issues if they stay too long in areas where salt water mixes with fresh water — like the Nepisiguit River, where the rescued whale had strayed.
“It was a bold plan, and not without some risk,” said Tim Binder, the Shedd’s executive vice president of animals, said of the rescue. “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, so we knew we had to respond quickly by lending our expertise and resources on the ground.”
The team released the whale into the estuary, where he was soon seen socializing with other whales.