According to the SeaLife Center, the calf was spotted near the village of Naknek, located on Alaska's west coast in the famous Bristol Bay region. The whale was seen several times lingering near a cannery in the community with no other whales nearby, unusual for such a young calf.
Upon being notified of the calf and getting approval from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, employees of the SeaLife Center on Monday mounted a rescue of the 5-foot-long, 110-pound whale, with help from Grant Aviation, which flew a nine-passenger aircraft to the village and back to accommodate the effort.
Jason Nunn, Kenai station manager with Grant Aviation, said that workers had to remove several seats from the aircraft to fit the whale. It lay atop a foam pad -- similar to the ones used for camping -- while wet towels were used to keep the mammal damp during the 70-minute plane ride. The plane had to be rerouted from its original flight schedule to accommodate the unexpected rescue.
"We do charters all over the state, and we've done 'I need to go right now' charters," Nunn said, but he couldn't recall another trip quite like this one.
"I've been doing this for about 12 years, and I don't remember ever hauling a live marine mammal," he said.
According to Tara Riemer Jones, CEO and president of the Alaska SeaLife Center, the rescue made for high tension, given the delicacy of getting the beluga from Naknek to Seward.
"Transporting a cetacean is very challenging," Jones said. "They performed a physical exam in Naknek, but we were on pins and needles until they got here."
The SeaLife Center is a marine research institution that is also open to the public. It has a tank capable of accommodating belugas, but this is the first time a beluga has ever been rescued and brought to the center. For now, the whale is in a smaller tank while veterinarians monitor its progress. Beluga whales typically stay with their mothers for two years, so having such a young whale means there's a strong chance of health problems arising.
"The calf is swimming on his own, cooperating with feedings, and breathing regularly, which are all very positive signs," Dr. Carrie Goertz, a staff veterinarian at the center, said in a press release. "However, there are tremendous hurdles ahead. Because this animal is extremely young, it is at a very high risk of complications."
Jones said that although the center is capable of holding an adult whale, federal guidelines say a beluga cannot be kept at a facility without a companion. That means the whale will likely be moved at some point. Seven North American facilities -- six in the U.S. and one in Canada -- that can hold belugas.
Because the whale will miss out on the usual familial socialization, it won't be released back into the wild.
Moving the whale to a new facility when it's larger may actually be easier than Monday's relocation, Jones said, based on information from the specialists at the center.
"They say the better-trained the animal is, up to a certain size, it's better able to handle being moved. It's actually less stressful," she said. That move will likely be handled by FedEx, on a large cargo plane.
So will the public be able to see the whale?
For the time being, Jones said, only behind-the-scenes tours of the center may be able to catch a glimpse of the whale on a video feed and even then, the feed may be turned off if the veterinarians at the center are performing a procedure.
That video feed will be provided to beluga experts around the U.S.
Eventually, depending on how long it takes for the whale to stabilize, the beluga may have to be moved to the larger tank, where visitors to the center could see it.
As for now, staff are just trying to keep the whale healthy and comfortable. Other things have -- out of necessity -- taken a backseat.
"We haven't named him yet," Jones said. "We just found out (Wednesday) morning that it was a male calf, so we haven't had time to really think about that."
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com