SEWARD -- Marine mammal specialists from across the U.S. have traveled to the Alaska SeaLife Center to help care for a baby beluga whale that became separated from its mother in Bristol Bay shortly after its birth.
The male calf is under 24-hour care, being fed by a stomach tube while learning how to suckle from a bottle.
"He's currently doing very well, swimming on his own and he has been from the first time he got here, learning to take food from a bottle, which has been challenging," said Tara Riemer Jones, the center's president and CEO.
It's believed to be the first baby beluga rescue in the United States, at least since federal record keeping began in 1972, she said. Other attempts at rescue resulted in calf deaths or in one case, the calf being returned to its pod.
It's such a rare event that specialists have been helping with the animal's care, including staff members from the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and SeaWorld in San Diego.
"It's actually a pretty unprecedented event in certain ways," said Dennis Christen, the Georgia Aquarium's director of animal training who was in place 29 hours after the calf arrived in Seward.
The whale was estimated to be 2 days old when it was found near South Naknek, in Alaska's Bristol Bay, on June 18. Officials believe a storm likely separated the calf from its mother.
Tim Lebling, the Alaska SeaLife Center's stranding coordinator, flew to South Naknek that afternoon to retrieve the calf.
It was flown 90 minutes back to Seward in dry transport. Lebling said the calf was placed on an air mattress in the plane, positioned so its weight wouldn't put pressure on vital organs, and then constantly covered with wet towels.
Lebling said it was touch-and-go for the first part of the flight, probably because of stress.
"We thought he took his last breath at one point," Lebling said, but then he breathed again.
Even though the beluga is still in critical care, caregivers are guardedly optimistic about his rehabilitation.
Survival odds for an animal this age coming into a stranding program are low, said Brett Long, the husbandry director at the center.
"We take it a day at a time," he said. "We're very happy to see that we appear to be meeting its nutritional goals and that it's maintaining its weight, and we're seeing slow, incremental weight gain."
The calf is about 5 feet long and weighs 115 pounds, up 5 pounds since his arrival.
The biggest worry now is the calf's immune system, which is insufficiently developed because it did not receive any of its mother's milk.
"We are working with other aquariums to provide supplements that will help aid the development of that immune system, but it's a waiting game," Long said.
Jones said there is nothing specifically wrong with the calf medically "other than he's young and at high risk."
"We're not going to say it hasn't been without some bumps in the road," Christen said. "We're very confident we're on the right path here, but it's still an animal that's in critical care, and we have to be guarded in our optimism, and we're just hopeful we're on the right path."
At the center, the calf has its own pool with toys and constant human companionship. At least three caregivers are with him 24 hours a day, two of them in wet suits and in the pool.
He often will rub up against his human handlers, who also help him learn new swimming patterns and play with him.
He's being kept out of the public's view for now in a pool being fed warmer water and in a sanitary environment. The hope is to move him soon to a larger pool, which can be seen from behind glass inside the Alaska SeaLife Center.
It's running about $2,000 a day to care for the calf, and that's not including the cost of the visiting marine mammal specialists.
Jones said the cost will strain the private, nonprofit research center's stranding program budget for the year, and officials are talking with potential donors and possibly setting up a donation matching program for individuals. They're also planning a 5K Wildlife Rescue Run on Aug. 4, encouraging virtual runners to sign up online to raise funds.
If the calf survives, he'll never see the open ocean again since there is no way for humans to teach him survival skills. The National Marine Fisheries Service will eventually decide where he will be placed.
"There are a number of facilities that would make a great home for this young whale, with companion animals that would likely accept him into their kind of family unit," Christen said.
Since facilities that take in animals like to be part of the naming process, the Alaska SeaLife Center hasn't given the calf a name yet.
But that hasn't stopped most everyone caring for him from calling him "Naknek."Photos: Beluga calf at SeaLife Center
Watch: Beluga calf at Alaska SeaLife Center
By MARK THIESSEN