Orphaned baby beluga needs new mom in St. Lawrence River

An orphaned baby beluga whale found on the shore of the St. Lawrence River earlier this week is facing an uncertain future.

Whale was discovered by vacationers, who then tried to keep it alive

In order to survive, this baby beluga whale, found washed up on the shore of the St. Lawrence River in Rivière-du-Loup Thursday, will need to find a female whale that can nurse it. (Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals)

An orphaned baby beluga whale found on the shore of the St. Lawrence River earlier this week is facing an uncertain future, despite the best efforts of the humans that stepped in to help it.

A family vacationing in Rivière-du-Loup, Que., came across the whale Thursday afternoon around 1 p.m. The tide was low, so the whale was almost completely out of the water.

The family started dousing it with water and used a sheet to protect it from the sun.

"We dug a hole so that water would accumulate and its skin would hydrate," said 15-year-old Nicholas Milliard, who came across the beluga with his two younger brothers. 

"Every five minutes we got it a bucket of water. The water level was dropping, and it was becoming more and more difficult to get water."

The Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM), based in Tadoussac, was called in and had the whale looked over via Facetime by a Vancouver-based veterinarian.

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It was determined the whale was female and probably only hours old; its umbilical cord was still attached to its body.

Members of the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals tend to a baby beluga whale that found itself stranded in Rivière-du-Loup. (GREMM)

Josiane Cabana, spokesperson for GREMM, said what happened to the mother is a mystery. Did she die during birth, was she killed by a predator, or was it something else? All those questions may go unanswered.

Lactating female needed

When the baby whale was deemed to be healthy, GREMM began the process of finding her a new home. The key was finding her a food source.

"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 said.

When the orphan was introduced to a group believed to be made up of mostly females alongside other young whales, she got along with the others but none of the females showed signs of wanting to feed her, Cabana said.

The family that found the whale doused it with water and protected it from the sun while waiting for help to arrive. (GREMM)

She then migrated to a second group, but it was made up of younger whales, Cabana explained.

By that time, it was getting dark so the researchers had to head back ashore.

Will it work?

It will be awhile until researchers know the orphaned whale's fate, Cabana said, if they ever find out at all.

Researchers took a skin sample and the whale's umbilical cord, which they can use to match it to any carcasses that wash up in the future.

The whale also had marks from rubbing up against pebbles ashore which, if permanent, can be used to identify her.

The whale was brought by boat to the St. Lawrence Estuary in hopes a lactating female whale will provide it with milk. (GREMM)

GREMM has attempted this kind of operation only once before, in 2008, and it's unclear if it worked, Cabana said.

The carcasses of beluga mothers and calves have been turning up more frequently in recent years.

Chemical pollution, noise and stress caused by increased maritime traffic in the area and less ice forming in the St. Lawrence Estuary during the winter are all possible explanations, Cabana said, but no one knows for sure.

Four beluga carcasses, including those of two lactating females, have already been found this year.

Milliard and his brothers are hopeful they averted at least one beluga similar misfortune. 

"We are proud," he said. "We told ourselves we just saved a life, and a rare one at that."

with files from Ariane Perron-Langlois