Tyonek was spotted from the air lying almost dead on a deserted beach in Alaska. And everyone who has been involved in his round-the-clock care at a rehab center for the last five months has done a sterling job.
Yet the future of this baby beluga is bleak.
The story began last fall when Noah Meisenheimer, an enforcement officer of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), was being helicoptered back to Anchorage from his work investigating the death of a beluga. Flying up the west coast of Cook Inlet, he spotted a gray shape on the beach and asked the pilot, Kenneth Reiser, to turn around and land close by.
On the sand, they identified the gray shape as a baby beluga, about a month old, five feet long, barely alive, his skin dried out by the sun.
Belugas in that region are endangered, so Meisenheimer called NMFS’s Office of Protected Resources and got permission to move the animal into deeper water. But despite their several attempts, the exhausted calf simply turned back toward shore.
Meisenheimer called Dr. Carrie Goertz, the Alaska SeaLife Center’s director for animal health, who hastened to the scene.
Beluga calves normally stay with their mothers for at least two years, but there were no signs of any other belugas in the water nearby. And the baby was still resisting any effort to return him to the ocean.
“I felt that he had zero chance of survival in Cook Inlet,” Dr. Goertz later told the Anchorage Daily News. “And I felt that at least initiating the attempt of a rescue, that that wasn’t going to be cruel and unusual.”
Time was of the essence in saving the baby’s life. So, they took one of the passenger seats out, and using a body bag as a makeshift sling, eased the baby into the back of the Helo3, with the veterinarian sitting at his side.
Meanwhile, emergency staff from SeaLife, the only marine mammal rehabilitation facility in Alaska, were on their way to the helicopter pad in Anchorage with their “cetacean wagon,” a large pickup truck loaded with emergency supplies.
Next day, experts from the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, various SeaWorld facilities, the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and the Vancouver Aquarium all converged on SeaLife to join the 24/7 effort to restore the baby’s health and wellbeing.
At first, the youngster couldn’t even support himself in the water, and it took four people to feed and hydrate him. Within a few days, however, he was growing stronger, but it was still touch-and-go for the first few weeks as he struggled with intestinal problems, skin problems and other issues.
They named the calf Tyonek, which means “little chief” in the local language of the village near where he was found. And over the next month, he gained 39 pounds on his baby formula of powdered milk substitute supplemented with salmon oil and herring filets pureed in a Vitamix blender – two pints at a time, six times a day.
The beluga population in the Cook Inlet has shrunk from about 1,300 in 1979 to an estimated 328 today, and NOAA wanted to give the youngster every chance to rejoin others of his kind. So, while looking after Tyonek, Dr. Goertz and the team were being careful to steer a course between giving him the kind of contact baby belugas normally get from their mothers, aunts and sisters, and not letting him become so conditioned to humans that it would be difficult for him to be released back to the wild.
One example of the environmental enrichment program was to play beluga sounds from Cook Inlet whales, twice a day in five-minute intervals. Tyonek listened carefully and was learning to mimic the calls he was hearing.
All the same, everyone knew that release was a long shot. Growing up in the ocean, Tyonek would have been learning so much more from his mother and all his extended family: survival skills, communication skills, social skills. Still, the plan was to keep every option open, and the baby beluga seemed to bond with his caregivers, chatting away with chirps and clicks.
“He’s very tactile,” Goertz told the Washington Post in an interview. “Typically a beluga calf is touching his mom most of the time . . . He’s definitely looking for that type of interaction.”
Tyonek would certainly be a candidate for transfer to a future seaside sanctuary.
Ultimately, on February 8th, 2018, NOAA concluded that Tyonek couldn’t be released back to the Cook Inlet because he was too young when found and lacks the skills he would need to survive on his own. Instead, the now-five-month-old whale would need to spend the rest of his life in human care.
And so began the process of deciding where he should go. This involved checking out the various aquariums and marine theme parks in North America that have belugas.
There should, of course, be one other option: a seaside sanctuary. But while there are numerous sanctuaries in the United States for land-based animals of almost any kind, from elephants to big cats to great apes to birds and butterflies, there are none yet for whales and dolphins.
NOAA has now concluded that the best place for Tyonek is SeaWorld San Antonio, which at least has adult females and other male calves with whom the calf will be able to socialize. A date for his transfer has yet to be announced.
NOAA hopes to learn more from Tyonek while he grows up at SeaWorld. They write:
“By monitoring Tyonek as he grows from a calf to an adult animal, we can learn important information about his physical and behavioral development, including his hearing, vocalizations, social interactions, and overall body condition.
“This knowledge will help inform the protection and recovery of wild populations of belugas, specifically Cook Inlet beluga whales, which are one of eight endangered species that NOAA Fisheries identified as [being] most at risk of extinction.”
The downside, of course, is that Tyonek will be spending his entire life in a concrete tank, earning his keep by performing for human audiences.
There’s still a chance, of course, for the young beluga, since he would certainly be a candidate for transfer to a future seaside sanctuary.
The people who came to look after him from aquariums and marine theme parks across the U.S. and Canada have already given Tyonek back his life. What he needs now is a life where he can grow and thrive – along with others of his kind who may also be retired from the entertainment industry – in an environment that’s as close as possible to the life he would have known in the ocean where he was born.
Working together, we could make that happen.