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Wildlife

Wandering Alaska beluga first spotted near San Diego found dead off Mexico

  • Author: Erika I. Ritchie, The Orange County Register
  • Updated: October 6
  • Published October 6

ANAHEIM, California -- When a snow-white whale was spotted in June by a whale watching charter boat captain off San Diego, marine mammal experts were stunned.

Beluga typically thrive near the North Pole or along Russia’s northern coast and had never been seen along the West Coast before.

On Monday, Oct. 5, the whale was spotted again. This time floating dead off Laguna Ojo de Liebre, according to a Facebook post.

The whale was reported by a Mexican fisherman halfway down the Baja Peninsula.

A team of Mexican scientists are on their way to try and locate the whale’s body again after it drifted from the beach.

In June, Robert Brownell, a senior scientist for international protected marine resources with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, marveled at the animal’s appearance. At the time he called the sighting the rarest in 150 years.

“I’m pretty sure it’s the same one,” he said on Monday. “It was such an unusual condition to have had it here in the first place.”

From the Facebook photos, Brownell said the whale did not look skinny or unhealthy, though it was far away from its normal range and clearly had to subside on alternatives to its regular diet.

“It was getting by on something,” he said.

If the team of scientists is able to locate the carcass, they will likely perform a general autopsy or, depending on the condition of the body, collect some genetic samples.

“It would tell us what population it came from,” Brownell said.

Most likely, he said, the whale came from a population that lives in Cook Inlet in Southcentral Alaska. Most live farther north.

Belugas are pure white to blend in with the ice in the Arctic. Their skin is spongy so they aren’t cut by the ice. Unlike other whales and dolphin, they are able to rotate their necks and can actually turn to look at their fluke.

To have even discovered the whale is incredibly lucky, Brownell said.

“It’s sort of a needle in a haystack,” he said. “I’m surprised it showed up. It could have come up anywhere. But that area is more populated.”

No one yet knows why the whale died. From the Facebook photographs, there are no obvious wounds on its body.

Most likely is it got entangled in fishing gear, Brownell said.

NOAA was first alerted to the discovery after Domenic Biagini filmed the whale with his drone as it swam seven miles off Mission Bay.

Biagini, who operates Gone Whale Watching San Diego, was on an early morning cruise when he got a tip from Chris Faist, a school teacher and wildlife photographer, and Lisa LaPointe, another San Diego-area whale watching captain. The two contacted Biagini because he is known for his drone wildlife photography.

“I saw half the body pop up, there was no mistaking it,” Biagini said at the time. “It was perfect, pearly white and in perfect condition. It might have even looked up. I’ve filmed a lot of things, but I’ve never had the feeling I did when I looked at my screen. I knew it was history.”

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