Dozens of rescuers watched a whale suspended in a net in the air, in what French officials described as “an unprecedented operation” to save the 13-foot mammal.
But despite a massive operation that mobilized 80 people — divers, scientists, police and firefighters — the local prefecture announced early Wednesday that the beluga had died.
After realizing he was too weak to survive, authorities decided to euthanize the suffering animal, they said. It was not clear how the whale, which weighed more than 1,700 pounds, had strayed so far from the Arctic waters that make up its natural habitat.
Vets had waited on land to examine the mammal that captivated onlookers after getting stuck for days in France’s northwest. Crowds formed on the banks of the river in Normandy to watch the operation.
On the coast near the English Channel, a command center was monitoring as rescuers planned to treat the whale before releasing it back into the water.
But, far from the cold waters his protected species is used to, the cetacean’s health worsened on the truck.
“During the trip, veterinarians noticed a deterioration in his condition, particularly in respiratory functions,” veterinarian Florence Ollivet-Courtois said. She said the beluga had spent days in an unsuitable environment, citing the river’s temperatures, pollution and boats.
“The operation was launched because it was the last chance. If we had left him, he was doomed to a certain death,” she told a news conference. “So we tried to save him. Unfortunately, we did not succeed.”
Members of the marine conservation group and rescuers tried earlier this week to feed the whale fish to help it make the return along the river out to the English Channel. They had voiced fears the weakened animal could starve in the waterway.
Shortly after the crane hoisted it out of the Seine, nonprofit Sea Shepherd France said the beluga did not have infectious diseases but was not able to digest food for reasons that were unclear.
Sea Shepherd thanked local authorities for attempting the tricky operation.
“It is with a heavy heart that we announce that the beluga did not survive the transfer, which was risky but indispensable to give a chance to an animal that was otherwise condemned,” it said.
Sightings of belugas in rivers are rare, but in 2018, a whale nicknamed Benny in Britain’s River Thames sparked a similar rescue mission.
Other Arctic animals have also been spotted in Europe in recent years, according to the Natural History Museum, including a walrus nicknamed Wally.
“While it’s too soon to say if the increase in Arctic wildlife in Europe’s waters is part of a growing trend, an increase in melting ice, the movement of prey and stormy weather have all been linked to changes in the distribution of these animals,” the museum said.
Rick Noack contributed to this report.