A baby beluga whale rescued from Alaska's Bristol Bay region in mid-June has died at the Alaska SeaLife Center.
The whale, recovered from waters near the village of Naknek and flown to the SeaLife Center on June 18, began showing signs of declining health on Sunday and died shortly after midnight Monday, according to a press release from the center. The whale was the first known U.S. rescue of a stranded, live beluga calf since enactment of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, the release said.
The whale, a male only days old at the time of its rescue, had been carefully watched and cared for by numerous biologists during the course of its attempted rehabilitation. Experts from around the world observed digitally or made the trek to Alaska to help care for the calf during its intensive recovery process.
Though the whale had shown some signs of improvement since its rescue -- the five-foot-long calf gained five pounds during its time at the center and had learned to feed from a bottle -- the process was never 100 percent positive, according to Tara Riemer Jones, president and CEO of the Alaska SeaLife Center.
"It was really a day-by-day sort of thing," Jones said. "There were some days where he was better, but there wasn't an overall trend until yesterday."
Biologists were performing a necropsy on the whale to determine exact cause of death at about 1 p.m. Monday. Jones didn't have exact details, but said that there had been some signs that the calf's condition may have been worsening.
"I do know that it's respiration rate during the day was higher than it's been -- not abnormally high but higher than what we'd seen with this whale," Jones said. The whale had also shown ongoing gastro-intestinal issues.
The SeaLife Center has a tank capable of fitting a beluga -- one of only a few such facilities in the world -- but the whale never grew large enough to be moved to that tank, which is viewable by the public.
Jones said that the necropsy Monday would help determine if the whale's known health problems were the primary cause of death or secondary factors.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com