Rescued Beluga Calf Has a Chance Thanks to Zoos

Estimated to be no more than four weeks old, a beluga calf was found stranded in Alaska’s Cook Inlet alone on September 30th. With no adult whales in sight, after an unsuccessful attempt to encourage the little male into deeper water and an assessment from Alaska SeaLife Center’s Director of Animal Health, Dr. Carrie Goertz DVM, the decision was made to move him to Alaska’s only permitted marine mammal rescue center: the Alaska SeaLife Center.

Currently also caring for two rescued sea otters, two harbor seals, and an orphaned walrus calf, Alaska SeaLife Center’s animal care staff is experienced in rehabilitating marine animals. They literally work around the clock, regardless of the conditions. Whether late into the night, in freezing temperatures, throughout the day, or stretching over holiday weekends, the veterinarians and care staff have an important job: do everything they can to give their patients a second chance.


(Image from Alaska SeaLife Center’s Facebook Page)

For the recently rescued beluga calf who is already swimming on his own, that means keeping watch and recording his behavior 24-hours a day, hydrating him with an electrolyte solution every two hours, and just as regularly feeding him formula that replicates the nutrition he should be receiving from his mother’s milk. It also means calling in other professionals from around the continent to ensure the best possible chance that the little whale recovers. In just a few short days, experts from SeaWorld, Vancouver Aquarium, Shedd Aquarium, Mystic Aquarium, and Georgia Aquarium flew to Alaska to assist.

The update provided by the Alaska SeaLife Center on their Facebook page on October 6th also mentioned that the beluga is strong enough now for veterinarians to begin to look for underlying health problems. Blood samples, various images, several cultures, and more diagnostic tests will be ordered, collected, and analyzed in the coming days and weeks in an attempt to understand why the calf was orphaned and stranded in the first place.

The Alaska SeaLife Center, a zoological facility accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, will continue to be important in this little one’s treatment and rehabilitation. But, even before he stranded, zoos were already playing a major role in his rescue and recovery.

Resident animals in zoos and aquariums help animal care specialists and veterinarians understand the behavior and physiology of their species. It is no coincidence that the individuals invited to Alaska to contribute to the care of the rescued beluga at the SeaLife Center are members of teams that have worked extensively with belugas within their care.

Beluga whales at SeaWorld, Georgia Aquarium, Mystic Aquarium, Vancouver Aquarium, and Shedd Aquarium have been taught to voluntarily participate in healthcare sessions, also known as husbandry sessions, through positive reinforcement.

Animal care specialists from the facilities listed above have trained belugas to offer behaviors that allow veterinarians to collect blood samples, gastric samples, blow/breath cultures, ultrasound images, fecal samples, urine samples, and more. This data collected from several animals across multiple facilities allows researchers and veterinarians to create a ‘baseline’ which depicts the normal levels of white and red blood cell count, cholesterol, bacteria, stomach acids, hormones, etc. for healthy beluga whales.

When a rescued animal is brought in, like in the case of this Alaskan calf, veterinarians are only able to properly diagnose him because of the information previously collected and studied. After analyzing his blow cultures, the radiographs and sonogram images of his intestines, lungs, and bones, and running a full blood panel, they will compare and contrast his results with the baseline data collected over many years in order to accurately understand what ailment he has and how to treat him successfully.


(Image from Alaska SeaLife Center’s Facebook Page)

During his rehabilitation, he will continue to need the electrolyte solution and specialized formula as a milk substitute until he is old enough to eat fish on his own. Mind you, the perfect formula for a barely-month-old beluga calf is not found in a convenient powder on the shelf of a grocery store. Instead, the recipe had to be produced and shared among zoological facilities.

In order to create said recipe, veterinarians studied the milk of pregnant and nursing female belugas in zoos and aquariums, noting fat content, proteins, antibodies, and immunoglobulins.

When new calves are born, their animal care staff members tirelessly begin recording how often they breathe, how many times the calves nurse from their mothers each hour, and for how long they latch on during the periods of nursing. They take daily, or weekly, or monthly measurements as the calves grow, keeping track of their lengths, girths, and overall weights, giving the scientific community an inside look at accurate beluga growth rates. They note when their teeth erupt from their gums, when they begin to eat fish for the first time, and then when they consume it consistently and are considered fully weaned, allowing scientists to understand the behavioral patterns of young animals.

It is all of this information combined along with the dedication of the zoological professionals currently caring for him that gives this little beluga that stranded in the Cook Inlet in Alaska the best chance at surviving.

And this example is just one of thousands. The same can be said for black bears and bobcats orphaned by hunters, for opossums and foxes hit by cars, for sea turtles and manatees maimed by boat propellers, and eagles and hawks sickened by lead poisoning. Through the commitment of veterinarians, researchers, and animal care professionals both past and present, rescued animals receive a second chance at life.


(Image from Alaska SeaLife Center’s Facebook Page)

On his way toward his own second chance, this beluga calf still has many obstacles to overcome and so the public is reminded to remain cautiously hopeful as so much about his future is unclear.

But, this is certain: without the knowledge of the zoological professionals privileged to have worked with belugas elsewhere and the efforts of the Alaska SeaLife Center team members today, this little whale would already be gone.

Instead, he is in the hands of world-renowned rescuers. For this reason, he stands a chance. Good luck to the little whale and to all of those dedicated to his care. Best wishes for his future.

Vancouver Board Makes Irresponsible Decision for Whales and Dolphins

Two days ago, on March 9th, the Vancouver Aquarium’s role in conservation, rescue and rehabilitation, and research was forever altered after the Vancouver City Park’s board voted to prohibit the housing of cetacean species, which includes all whales, dolphins, and porpoises.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums called the decision “troubling”. And, in a politically correct world they’re right. But, let’s not be politically correct for a second. Let’s be blunt. Let’s call a spade a spade. Let’s call this ultimatum what it really is: irresponsible.

The Vancouver Aquarium has been a major contributor to cetacean research and conservation for the last fifty years. Notable projects include data collection of killer whale vocalizations, the metabolic rates of pacific white-sided dolphins, communication patterns between beluga mothers and offspring, echolocation abilities of multiple species, and the rescue and rehabilitation of several whales, dolphins, and porpoises, three of which still call the Vancouver Aquarium home.

Currently, the Aquarium houses only three cetaceans, Helen (Pacific white-sided dolphin), Chester (false killer whale), and Daisy (harbor porpoise). ALL of which were RESCUED.


Helen (foreground) and Chester interacting with members of their care team. (Image from

So, let’s walk through this step by step with Daisy as an example. Stranded for unknown reasons in 2008, Daisy was rescued as a one-month old calf suffering from severe dehydration, emaciation, and muscle loss. At first, she was so weak and malnourished, she did not have the ability to hold herself up in the water, let alone swim. After nearly a year of rehabilitation, during which time the Vancouver Aquarium’s animal care staff members gave her the best possible support through their knowledge and expertise, Daisy beat epically long odds and thrived. Deemed non-releasable due to the fact that she never learned to hunt and survive in the wild, the Vancouver Aquarium became her permanent home in 2009.

In the years that she’s lived at the Vancouver Aquarium since, Daisy’s story has touched hundreds of thousands of people. She’s helped educate the public about her species through presentations called “Porpoise Talks”, connected and interacted with guests as she displays her curious side, and participated in research studies that have helped reveal details about porpoises that are assisting researchers and conservationists in saving multiple cetacean species today.

Her journey also mattered when Levi, an adult male harbor porpoise stranded several years later in March of 2013. In the same way Daisy was not able to support herself in the water, neither was Levi, and in similar fashion to the previous situation, the experts at the Aquarium fashioned a custom-made raft and cared for him during his several months of rehabilitation. As he improved, Levi became a candidate for return to the wild. And, in September of 2013, six months after he was found stranded on the shore of Saanich Inlet, Levi was swimming in the ocean again.

But with the foolish decision made just two days ago, successful stories like Levi’s and Daisy’s, stories of survival and scientific progress, will become few and far between, if not completely nonexistent.

What happens next time? When an animal flounders, in need of help, who will be there to assist? Where will that animal go? Without the Vancouver Aquarium, which is one of Canada’s only teams with the expertise and availability  to save stranded cetaceans, the next time a porpoise, dolphin, or whale strands, that injured/ill animal will have to be transported several hours to the next rehabilitation center *IF* there is one available. And let’s hope there is, because the only other option is for the animal to be euthanized by drug or bolt gun.

There are repercussions for the actions set forth by this reckless decision. This vote, made for political reasons alone, in hopes to appease the, admittedly loud, but small, unqualified minority, is a setback in the scientific study of cetaceans and also jeopardizes the lives of future animals in distress.

Yet, while I am angry and distressed by those consequences, as all cetacean-lovers should be, I am not surprised that the board caved to aforementioned uninformed protestors.

We live in a blind society that values unscientific, short-sighted philosophies more than the wellbeing of individual animals and entire species.

We live in a society where documentary filmmakers attempt to damage and dismantle reputable zoological facilities with lies and twisted information without considering what that means for future distressed and stranded animals.

A society where the same soccer mom who condemns and vows to boycott world-renowned aquariums on Twitter also hypocritically demands “rescue the dolphin!”, not understanding how the same professional entities they choose to attack are needed in order to give that animal a future of any kind.

A society where PETA finds the money to brandish billboards with crass images and grossly tactless misinformation to slander the zoological community’s hard-working, well-educated animal care specialists who have dedicated their lives to reviving individual animals and researching whole species, and yet donates NOT A SINGLE DIME to cetacean rescue, research, or conservation.

Meanwhile, accredited organizations like the Vancouver Aquarium, are actively participating in research and conservation that directly benefits killer whales, belugas, harbor porpoises, and the most endangered marine mammal in the world: the vaquita.

In fact, some of the acoustic research conducted by researchers at the Vancouver Aquarium with the help of Daisy, is currently being used to help locate the remaining thirty individuals of the elusive vaquita species in hopes of bolstering the population and bringing them back from the very edge of extinction.


Vancouver Aquarium’s rescue team at work. (Image from

Whales, dolphins, and porpoises are intriguing, charismatic animals, and as such, have garnered adoration and attention from many. Shutting down reputable zoos and aquariums, organizations that help research, conserve, and rescue animals is not helpful.

It’s harmful.

However, it is admirable to want to make a difference. Zoos and aquariums encourage and need your help, because when animals and species are in need, very rarely do the loudmouthed armchair-activists actually show up.

So, help.

Save the dolphins. Recycle discarded fishing line. Choose reusable bags instead of plastic when you go to the grocery store. Volunteer as part of a marine mammal rescue team.

Save the porpoises. Donate to VaquitaCPR. Refuse to participate in balloon releases. Organize a beach cleanup.

Save the whales. Eat sustainable seafood when you’re ordering fish at a restaurant. Visit a responsible zoo or aquarium involved in rescue, research, and conservation programs. And then, teach others how to care for them too.

We all have the power to make a difference for these animals, but it should be the right kind of difference. It should be one based on science. It should be one based on correct, factual information. It should be a responsible one full of action that benefits them now and in the future.

So, for the love of cetaceans, choose to make the right difference and pass it on.


Daisy. (Image from

[Correction: This post originally identified the Vancouver Aquarium’s board as the entity that voted on the prohibition of cetaceans. This is incorrect as the decision was, in fact, made by the Vancouver City Park board which controls the property currently leased by the accredited aquarium and this post has been changed to reflect that fact.]