Updates will be published as we receive them from the animal welfare team conducting the rescue.
Early Thursday, a group of biologists and researchers began a rescue mission for the beluga whale that swam too far up a river in New Brunswick, Canada. Biologists gave the whale more than 10 days to return to sea before they decided to intervene for the animal’s welfare.
There are three phases of the mission — capture, transport and release. A hoop net, a stretcher and an inflatable mattress were used for the capture, according to a spokesman on site.
The team carried the beluga out of the river on a stretcher and placed it on a truck, which took the whale to the airport. The team, which includes biologists and animal health experts from the Marine Animal Response Society, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and the Vancouver Aquarium, placed the beluga on a plane to be delivered to its release point.
As of late Thursday afternoon, the team had moved the whale from the plane to a pontoon raft, which was lowered into the estuary. The beluga, which biologists discovered was male, was released from the raft and “is now swimming freely in the St. Lawrence River,” according to a spokesperson.
Photos and video from the mission:
After the plane landed, the team moved the whale from the plane to a pontoon raft, which was lowered into the estuary.
The lone beluga whale was stranded in the Nepisiguit River in eastern New Brunswick. The whales typically hang out in the estuaries in the Gulf of St. Lawrence during the summer, catching fish and socializing. Sometimes they even swim up the rivers to chase after a meal.
This beluga went a little too far, though, and didn’t seem to have any desire to go back to the great wide open. So a rescue team hatched a plan to move it out.
With waterfalls and rapids blocking the path, the whale couldn’t get too far up the river. The animal set up camp just downstream from those rapids — with migrating salmon to feed on — which is approximately a three-mile swim from the estuary.
Belugas are animals of the Arctic, which is why they evolved their pearly-white skin and don’t have a dorsal fin. (It would really hurt if your dorsal got swiped by some sea ice while you were trying to come up for air!) In the winter, these social animals hang out in groups around the frozen Arctic. During the summer, they retreat to warmer waters like the Gulf of St. Lawrence in eastern Canada, north of Maine.
During this time of year, thousands of belugas can group in the shallow water of estuaries — where rivers meet the ocean — and feed on fish that are heading upstream, like salmon.
“It’s just rare that they go this far up the river and decide not to come back out,” said Tonya Wimmer, director of the Marine Animal Response Society and leading the rescue effort.
The Marine Animal Response Society is a nonprofit animal welfare organization in Canada. On June 2, the society received a tip that the beluga was in the river. They checked on the animal numerous times and didn’t seen any signs of distress.
Wimmer’s most recent check-in was Wednesday afternoon. She said the beluga appeared to be okay and had been for the past two days. She said they waited to take action because ideally, the whale would have swam out on its own. Biologists usually wait a few days to see whether this will happen naturally.
“That’s the main reason we’re intervening in this case,” Wimmer told The Post. The whale didn’t “seem inclined to turn around and go back out the river.”
Being in the river wasn’t going to kill the whale, but it’s not a great environment for the beluga to be in. They can exist in partially fresh water in the areas around rivers, which they are drawn to in the summer months. But they aren’t built for permanent freshwater residence.
There are a few ways biologists can relocate something as large as a beluga whale. The first is to attract the animal and get it to follow you out of the river. The second would be to get behind the whale and encourage it to swim out by making unpleasant noises.
Wimmer said those two less-intrusive options were probably not going to work in this case because the whale showed no desire to swim out — or even look for a way out.
“The safety of the animal and the humans around it are the priority,” Wimmer added.
The society asked that people in the area only watch from a distance. It is illegal to harm, harass, disturb or kill belugas, which are an endangered species in Canada.