PEI

Look, but don't touch: How to keep the beluga in Mount Stewart safe

It’s been a busy time in the tiny community of Mount Stewart, P.E.I., as hundreds of visitors stop where the Hillsborough River passes through to see a visiting beluga whale.

Scientists know this beluga, and it should be in the St. Lawrence estuary

The beluga has been hanging around Mount Stewart for weeks. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

It's been a busy time in the tiny community of Mount Stewart, P.E.I., as hundreds of visitors stop where the Hillsborough River passes through to see a visiting beluga whale.

The beluga has been there for several weeks. Natasha Campbell at In the Mix Bakery said they have seen visitors from as far away as O'Leary.

"We've seen quite an increase for the month of May for sure, as opposed to other years," said Campbell.

"Some days it can be pretty chaotic."

Beluga cookies have been popular at In the Mix Bakery. (In the Mix Bakery/Facebook)

The bakery has been making beluga-themed cookies and cupcakes in honour of the whale, and they always sell out within a couple of hours.

'Not a good place'

Belugas are rare visitors to P.E.I., especially so far upriver from the ocean as Mount Stewart, and the whale's long stay at Mount Stewart has marine biologist Robert Michaud worried.

"It's not a good place for beluga to be. [They] should be back in the St. Lawrence estuary," he said.

Michaud is the scientific director and president of the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals, and has been studying belugas for 35 years. He's been watching social media for news of the Mount Stewart beluga, and has seen clear enough pictures to actually recognize the individual that is in Mount Stewart. He knows where it normally would be, and the other belugas it swims with.

Getting into trouble

Belugas are social, even gregarious, and when they spend a lot of time away from other belugas they will start looking for other companionship.

"Whenever they are left behind and by themselves they tend to get into trouble looking for buddies, looking for interaction, looking for stimulation. And sometimes what they find, it's not what they should find," said Michaud.

"They start to be interested by buoys, by boats, by humans. And they tend to develop, which is very concerning, they tend to develop fixation to some specific spots."

For this reason, Michaud said, it is important for people not to interact with the beluga. He said he has seen videos of people patting it, and he said that is concerning. If the beluga becomes too comfortable in Mount Stewart it may not leave and return to a healthier habitat for it.

Michaud acknowledges that the temptation to interact with the beluga is strong.

"It's difficult to refrain from doing it because the belugas are asking for it. They are coming up to us," he said.

Because this individual has been recognized, Michaud is eager to learn if it can find its way back to its friends in the St. Lawrence estuary. It is an unusual opportunity, he said, for scientists to recognize a lone beluga so far from its normal home. He is hopeful it will eventually leave the river, and be spotted again in the St. Lawrence estuary.

More from CBC P.E.I.

With files from Island Morning

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