Quebec researchers release hours-old beluga back into the St. Lawrence

When a newborn beluga was found beached near the St. Lawrence River on Thursday, it prompted a major rescue effort.

The whale was spotted on the shoreline in Riviera-du-Loup, about 200 km northeast of Quebec City, by 15-year-old Nicholas Milliard and his two younger brothers.

Quebec’s marine mammals emergency response team was called shortly after the boys’ discovery. In the meantime, Milliard and his brothers dug a hole for the whale so that the water they were dousing it with would gradually accumulate and keep the whale’s skin hydrated. They also used a sheet to protect it from the sun.

Josiane Cabana, of the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network, told reporters that the newborn whale appeared healthy when they arrived.

“She seemed to be in good shape and quite vigorous, and only a few hours old,” Cabana said.

The newborn whale was found with her umbilical cord still attached, which led researchers to believe that her mother died during childbirth, though the exact cause remains unknown.

“It would not be surprising to find another dead female in the coming days,” Robert Michaud, president of the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM), told Montreal newspaper Le Devoir.

It doesn’t bode well for the region’s belugas, which Michaud said are in an “increasingly precarious” situation.

According to WWF-Canada, the St. Lawrence beluga population has steadily declined. There are now fewer than 900 belugas in the seaway, which is less than ten percent of where the population sat just over a century ago. They’re considered one of the most resilient whales species in the Arctic, but the St. Lawrence population has been hit hard by chemical and noise pollution and climate change. In fact, contaminant levels in the bodies of some St. Lawrence belugas has been so high that carcasses washed ashore were once classified as “hazardous toxic waste.”

“It’s one of the reasons this type of effort [is] made—to give belugas a chance, to put all the chances on their side,” Cabana told the Times Colonist.

The team decided the calf would have a chance of surviving if they put her in the water near a group of females, so that one of them might adopt her.

“Belugas have to nurse for two years, so she really has to find a lactating female that will feed her milk for those two years,” Cabana told CBC News.

Although females in captivity have been known to adopt orphaned calves, and some have even begun to lactate spontaneously, Cabana told reporters that the calf’s chances of survival are low.

The response team introduced the young whale to a group made up of mostly females and other calves, but none of the females took to her or showed signs of feeding her. They then watched the calf migrate to another group, though it was made up of mostly young whales.

By that time it was getting dark and the team was forced to head ashore. They eventually lost sight of the whale, but they did collect a skin sample and her umbilical cord before she was released.

She also had noticeable marks on her underside from rubbing against rocks. This will help them identify her in the future, especially if any young whale carcasses wash ashore, which is happening more often.

According to research compiled by GREMM, 14 beluga carcasses washed up on the shores of the St. Lawrence in 2015. Six of those whales were newborns and three were females who had just given birth. Another four beluga carcasses, two of which were lactating females, have already been found along the shores of the St. Lawrence this year.

Although it’s tough to predict this calf’s future, everyone involved in the rescue is hoping their efforts were enough to avoid another tragedy.