A baby beluga whale found stranded and alone in Bristol Bay has died at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward.
The calf was an estimated 2 or 3 days old when rescuers spotted it after a storm June 18 near the Diamond O Cannery in Naknek, according to the center. The discovery launched a rare, perhaps unprecedented rescue effort for a beluga calf, as veterinarians and marine mammal specialists began watching the animal around the clock at the Seward facility, said SeaLife Center president Tara Riemer Jones.
The calf died around midnight Sunday, she said. The death was not unexpected, Jones said.
All stranded animals are at risk, she said, but cetaceans such as whales and dolphins have particularly low chances of survival when separated from their mothers and rescued in the wild. The beluga calf had been encouraged to return to the open ocean but kept returning to shore before the rescue, according to the center.
"They were actually surprised that the calf, that we were able to keep the calf going so well for so long," Jones said. "This was way beyond the expectations for that team."
Last week, center officials expressed guarded optimism about the calf's prospects for survival. It was swimming on its own. It was learning to take food from a bottle, which officials said had been challenging. However, it was still in critical care.
The biggest worry had been the calf's immune system, which was insufficiently developed because it did not receive any of its mother's milk.
The beluga was 5 feet long and weighed 115 pounds, up 5 pounds since its arrival.
Jones could not immediately say why exactly the animal died. A necropsy was planned for later on Monday, she said.
Specialists from Georgia, Chicago and California had traveled to Alaska to aid in the rescue attempt, Jones said. Three experts were usually tending to the calf at any given time, she said, with an additional three people called into assist a few hours before the death.
The whale is believed to be the first baby beluga to be rescued in the United States since the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.
By KYLE HOPKINS
Anchorage Daily News