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Wildlife

Beluga calf found on Cook Inlet beach gets critical care at Alaska SeaLife Center

A team of experts from across North America is working around the clock to try to save a beluga whale calf found beached in Alaska in late September.

The beluga is at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, where it was taken Sept. 30, said Tara Riemer, president and CEO.

"He's still definitely in critical condition but also on an improving trajectory," Riemer said Monday afternoon.

Staff from five facilities have flown to Alaska to help take care of the calf, a male believed to be about a month old.

Beluga experts from SeaWorld San Diego, Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Vancouver Aquarium in Canada, and Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut all arrived in Seward days after the beluga was taken there.

"These are all beluga experts and some have worked with calves at their facilities," Riemer said.

The beluga arrived at the center measuring 64 inches long and weighing 142 pounds. The shape of its head showed that he'd lost fat stores and blubber. The goal right now is to get the beluga's weight back up, Riemer said, which so far hasn't happened.

The SeaLife Center is operating under a NOAA permit that doesn't allow for the animal to be on display, so it's being kept out of the public eye for now, Riemer said.

Between frequent feedings, staff spend time playing with the beluga so he doesn't associate all humans with veterinary procedures. In photos, the beluga can be seen swimming on his back as staff play with him.

"That's a very good sign, that he is offering up his belly like that," Riemer said.

The animal was first spotted on the beach in Trading Bay, south of Tyonek and on the west side of Cook Inlet, across from Nikiski. An Alaska State Troopers helicopter was flying overhead with an official from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration when they spotted the beluga.

It's not clear why the animal was stranded. NOAA officials tried to get the beluga back in the water to swim away, but it became clear that wasn't going to happen, Riemer said, so the calf was transferred to the SeaLife Center.

This summer, the SeaLife Center took in an orphaned walrus that required round-the-clock care. But the beluga needs far more attention than the walrus, with three to four people caring for him at all times, Riemer said.

The beluga is part of the endangered pod of Cook Inlet belugas. Most of the time, a rescued beluga would not be released into the wild, Riemer said. The animal's endangered status may change that.

NOAA will decide whether the animal can be released, Riemer said. If it can't be, the beluga will be sent to a facility that has other belugas.

Editor's note: More information has been added to this story to clarify that the SeaLife Center is operating under a NOAA permit to rehabilitate the animal. 

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