SEWARD, Alaska (KTUU) (Editor's note: this story has been updated with portions of a statement from NOAA Fisheries on Feb. 22, 2018 about why SeaWorld San Antonio was selected as the whale's new home, and about restrictions as to how the beluga whale from Alaska can be displayed to the public)
A Cook Inlet Beluga whale calf, rescued last September after being found beached and near death, is doing well and will soon be transferred to a new, permanent home, according to staff at the Alaska SeaLife Center.
"A lot of people that saw him early on are just surprised at how big he is and how plumped out he is" said Tara Riemer, president and CEO of the facility in Seward.
The whale, named Tyonek, after the village that's close to where he was found on a beach on the western shore of Cook Inlet, has increased in weight from 140 pounds when he was rescued, to 253 pounds. He's being fed a steady diet of "beluga formula", which consists of zoological milk replacement powder, mixed with herring.
"His appetite has been really really good" said Lisa Hartman, husbandry director at the center. "He knows exactly when we're coming in. He pretty much has us trained, but he knows when the bottle is coming."
Tyonek required around-the-clock intensive care for weeks after he was found, and whale experts from six aquatic facilities around the country flew to Alaska to help with his care. He is still being fed every four hours.
After being cared for in an indoor tank for weeks, the whale calf is now in a private, outdoor pool and has developed quite a personality.
"He's actually quite goofy at times" said Dr. Carrie Goertz, veterinarian and director of animal health at the center.
Goertz said Tyonek demands attention from people sitting on the edge of his pool.
"I was just talking with my colleague, and the next thing I know he's poking his head up, out of the pool, bumping my hand just like a puppy dog would, sitting on the couch, kind of like 'pet me'."
During the next few weeks, Tyonek will be airlifted to a new home: Sea World in San Antonio, Texas. The decision to send the beluga calf from Alaska to the animal theme park in Texas was made by NOAA Fisheries, which has jurisdiction over the endangered species.
A NOAA press release on Feb. 8 stated, "Tyonek was less than a month old when he stranded, is nutritionally and socially dependent, and lacks both survival and socialization skills needed to be successful on his own in the wild. It is likely his mother either abandoned him or died, so reuniting him with her was not an option. A permanent place at a marine mammal facility provides Tyonek with a second chance at survival and social development with other belugas."
As for the selection of SeaWorld in San Antonio, NOAA Fisheries said "The best place for him to be is with other beluga whales where he can have as close as possible to a normal family environment. NOAA Fisheries marine mammal experts have determined SeaWorld San Antonio can best meet the needs of this calf because there are four adult females that all birthed calves and/or acted as surrogate mothers, and there are two young male beluga calves, including one about the same age as Tyonek, that can provide companionship as the calf matures."
Mark Palmer, the associate director for the International Marine Mammal Project, called the decision to send the beluga calf to a commercial marine mammal park and oceanarium "a sad end result."
Palmer, in an email to KTUU, wrote "We don’t oppose the action taken by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service to bring the baby beluga whale into captivity to save the whale. We would prefer that the baby be released back to his home pod, but that may not be feasible."
Dr. Goertz says along with being dependent on humans for food, there's another major reason why Tyonek can't be release to the wild: he has a potentially fatal medical condition. Goertz says Tyonek suffered a collapsed lung after he was rescued, and since the exact cause was undetermined, she says it could happen again, putting Tyonek at risk of death unless he gets immediate care.
"Because of the extra air in the thorax, we winds up being super buoyant and unable to dive and therefore he wouldn't be able to hunt if that were to occur again," Dr. Goert said, "and it would essentially be a death sentence in the wild."
Goertz added "as an animal care person that works with wildlife , there's no greater calling than to work with endangered species and to help those populations recover, but in this case it wasn't in the cards...it wouldn't be fair to him."
The SeaWorld San Antonio website advertises a "beluga whale discovery swim experience" where guests can interact with beluga whales for 20 to 30 minutes while in the water. The company website states "Our SeaWorld San Antonio beluga whale swim is one of the only immersive programs of its kind in the world, giving our guests a chance to get to meet these amazing animals up close."
In a written statement, NOAA Fisheries stated "Under regulations, SeaWorld San Antonio may place Tyonek on public display; however, he may not be included in any interactive programs with the public or trained for performances. Public demonstrations of the calf being cared for and involved in enrichment-related behaviors may occur as part of an education and conservation program, which must be coordinated with, and approved in advance by, NOAA Fisheries."
An exact date for Tyonek's transfer to Sea World has not been set.
(Editor's note: NOAA notice that activities pictured authorized by MMHSRP's MMPA/ESA #18786-02)