Qila, the Vancouver Aquarium's 12-year-old beluga whale, gave birth to her first calf in front of an excited crowd of 300 visitors on Tuesday.
Aquarium veterinary team members believe that the calf is female, but say it will be about six months before they are certain.
The birth was captured live by television news cameras at 4:28 p.m. PT and the young whale appeared to be fine, swimming strongly on its own, as staff stood in the water nearby to lend a hand.
After 15 months of pregnancy, Qila is a first-time mother. The dad must be 19-year-old Imaq, the only male currently in the exhibit.
On June 5, Qila's caregivers reviewed blood sample test results and determined her progesterone levels were consistent with the early stages of labour.
In preparation for the birth, two other belugas, Imaq and Kavna, were relocated in order to allow Qila maximum space.
Qila remained in the Aquarium's Arctic Canada habitat with her mother, Aurora, who is 21 years old.
Aurora arrived at the Vancouver Aquarium in 1990 and gave birth to Qila in 1995. Qila was the first beluga whale to be conceived and born in a Canadian aquarium.
The survival rate for belugas in the wild is estimated to be less than 50 per cent, according to aquarium staff. In July 2005, Qila's three-year-old brother, Tuvaq, died in the pool.
Beluga facts from the Vancouver Aquarium:
- On average, beluga calves are born weighing 53-70 kilograms and measure roughly 1.5 metres long.
- Belugas are slate grey when they're born. As they age, their skin loses pigment cells, which causes it to turn white. Only the rims of their pectoral flippers and tail flukes retain their original grey.
- When a calf is ready to nurse it will bump the mother on the mammaries to let her know it wants to nurse, according to staff. The mother will then raise her tail so the calf can latch on to one of the two mammaries. The calf will turn on to its side so that it can latch on to a mammary with its mouth.
- Beluga calves do not suck when nursing. Instead, the mother squirts the milk into her calf's mouth. The frilly-edged tongue of a baby beluga helps it to form a seal when nursing. A beluga calf may nurse for as long as two years. Weaning starts at about six months, when the calf starts eating a combination of food and mom’s milk.
- Wild belugas live in Arctic and subarctic waters. The southernmost beluga population inhabits the St. Lawrence River estuary of Canada.
- Of seven Canadian beluga populations, two are listed as endangered, those in eastern Hudson Bay and Ungava Bay, two as threatened, those in Cumberland Bay and the St. Lawrence River estuary, and two as "of special concern," those in the eastern high Arctic including Baffin Bay, and western Hudson Bay. Only the eastern Beaufort Sea population is not at risk.