POSTED: 05:14 a.m. HST, Jul 06, 2012
SEWARD, Alaska >> Marine mammal specialists from across the country have descended on an Alaska aquarium to help care for a baby beluga whale that became separated from its mother shortly after its birth.
The male calf is under 24-hour care at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, being fed by a stomach tube while learning how to suckle from a bottle.
"He's currently doing very well, swimming on his own and he has been from the first time he got here, learning to take food from a bottle, which has been challenging," said Tara Riemer Jones, the center's president and CEO.
It's believed to be the first baby beluga rescue in the United States, at least since federal record keeping began in 1972, she said. Other attempts at rescue resulted in calf deaths or in one case, the calf being returned to its pod.
The whale was estimated to be 2 days old when it was found near South Naknek, in Alaska's Bristol Bay, on June 18. Officials believe a storm likely separated the calf from its mother.
Tim Lebling, the Alaska SeaLife Center's stranding coordinator, flew to South Naknek that afternoon to retrieve the calf.
It was flown 90 minutes back to Seward in dry transport. Lebling said the calf was placed on an air mattress in the plane, placed so its weight wouldn't put pressure on vital organs and then constantly covered with wet towels.
Lebling said it was touch-and-go for the first part of the flight, probably because of stress.
"We thought he took his last breath at one point," Lebling said, but then he breathed again.
Even though the beluga is still in critical care, caregivers are guardedly optimistic about his rehabilitation.
Survival odds for an animal this age coming into a stranding program are low, said Brett Long, the husbandry director at the center.
"We take it a day at a time," he said. "We're very happy to see that we appear to be meeting its nutritional goals and that it's maintaining its weight, and we're seeing slow, incremental weight gain."