baby passed away from unknown causes Wednesday morning while swimming. She stopped suddenly, and was brought to the surface, but vets' efforts to revive her failed. Our condolences to Maris, Beethoven, and the Aquarium staff who worked tirelessly to give the calf a chance.]
At 10:32 PM last Friday, May 18, proud parental beluga whales Maris and Beethoven welcomed Maris's first calf at the Georgia Aquarium. The baby beluga, a female, is a first for the Aquarium too – and staff and animal-care experts went to some lengths to prepare for the blessed event beforehand.
Planning for the little Whale Jr. began months ago. (Beluga gestation periods typically last 14-16 months, and calves usually arrive between May and July, so the Aquarium had plenty of time to feather the nest, so to speak.) Smaller additions included a curtain rod along the beluga exhibit's ceiling; if Maris went into labor during public hours, staff could close a curtain for privacy. Other measures involved more people and larger adjustments: divers entered Maris's pool at random times to get the expectant mother used to having humans around; "mood lighting" was used to accustom Maris to having lights on at night, when the tank lights are usually turned off. Billy Hurley, the chief animal officer at the Aquarium, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month that "Our goal is to make sure that in her mind, nothing is different."
Tests taken at that time – fetal heart rate; levels of amniotic fluid – seemed to indicate that the calf was doing fine. And the birth itself went uneventfully; Maris is recovering nicely, as far as we can tell from various news reports. But Aquarium vets wanted to give the youngun every advantage. The calf, who is unnamed as yet, is the first born to parents who were themselves born in human care (Maris was born in 1994 at the New York Aquarium, Beethoven in 1992 at SeaWorld San Antonio; both parents came to the Georgia Aquarium in 2005). Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against her. This is Maris's first pregnancy, and the survival rate for calves born to first-time whale moms is quite low, even for those born in their "natural range" environments; some put the percentages in the low teens.
Whale Jr. didn't get off to a strong start. Staff weighed the baby in at 82 pounds, which sounds gigantic to humans but is under the average beluga birth weight. Two divers needed to help Whale Jr. take her first breath, and the Georgia Aquarium's blog notes that she's needed help swimming around: "The calf showed signs that it was not strong enough to navigate on its own." Dr. Gregory Bossart, senior vice president and the Aquarium's chief veterinary officer, added, "She appeared to be weak, and her tail flukes hadn't hardened. Based on our knowledge regarding healthy calves, we knew we needed to intervene. Without our response, this calf would not have survived."
The calf's current inability to nurse is also of concern. The Aquarium had a plan in place for that, collecting colostrum – a substance rich in antibodies and minerals that protects newborns from infections – from Maris and giving it to the baby. And Hurley sounded optimistic about Maris's bonding with her daughter, characterizing the Aquarium as "pleased to see the development of her maternal behavior." But he warned that "many milestones over the next days and weeks" remain before the calf is out of the woods. Whale Jr. remains in critical condition as of this writing, and the beluga exhibit at the Aquarium has been closed in order to let the staff focus on Maris and her new baby around the clock. Good luck, little lady!
Chicago's Shedd Aquarium is also expecting a giant bundle of joy this year; Mauyak, who has calved successfully before, is due in October. We'll keep you posted on both these underwater-nursery stories.