SeaWorld Commemorates Rescue & Rehabilitation of Beluga Calf

SeaWorld in San Antonio, Texas is commemorating five years since a community of conservation groups came together to complete the first-ever rescue and rehabilitation of an endangered Cook Inlet beluga calf.

Residing at SeaWorld since March 2018 when National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) deemed the beluga, Tyonek, non-releasable, his care and study continues to advance the understanding of beluga behavior and health vital to protecting this endangered species in the wild.

SeaWorld’s dedication to beluga whale research, education and conservation has assisted research in more than 20 published scientific studies about the species.

“We are passionate about contributing to conservation efforts for threatened and endangered species of all kinds,” said Dr. Chris Dold, Chief Zoological Officer at SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. “Tyonek is a perfect example of what’s possible when groups step forward together to be a part of the solution through the rescue and rehabilitation of animals in need.  Because of the actions taken by this community of dedicated conservationists, we are making a meaningful impact on the preservation of endangered species like the Cook Inlet beluga.”

In September 2017, Tyonek was found stranded in Cook Inlet, Alaska by state and federal wildlife officers and reported to stranding network experts. He was malnourished, dehydrated and sunburnt on a mud flat fighting for his life.

He was rescued and moved to the Alaska SeaLife Center where from October 2017 to March 2018, experts from SeaWorld, Shedd Aquarium, Mystic Aquarium, Georgia Aquarium, Vancouver Aquarium and NOAA Fisheries supported the Alaska SeaLife Center in providing Tyonek with around-the-clock care.

In January 2018, NOAA deemed Tyonek non-releasable as he was nutritionally and socially dependent on other belugas at the time of stranding. As a result, Tyonek lacked both the survival and socialization skills needed to be successful on his own in the wild, as well as being predisposed to a collapsed lung that prevented him from diving to catch fish.

Due to these factors, NOAA looked to place him at a permanent care facility, ultimately selecting SeaWorld San Antonio because of its ability to accommodate Tyonek’s medical needs and social development, including allowing him to join a diverse pod of belugas, ranging in age and gender.

Also factoring into NOAA’s decision was SeaWorld’s ability to involve Tyonek in scientific study aimed at advancing conservation of wild populations.”

Although the end goal with every rescued animal is an eventual return to its natural environment, the animal’s health and quality of life is always the number one priority,” said Kimberly Damon-Randall, Director of the NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources. “While Tyonek could not be released, we are appreciative that the care and study from organizations like SeaWorld enable us to better understand animal behaviors and help preserve wild species, like Cook Inlet belugas.”

In the spring of 2018, Tyonek joined his new pod at SeaWorld San Antonio where he has learned how to vocalize, play, and dive for fish, as well as how to participate in husbandry behaviors (behaviors that allow animals to participate voluntarily in their own medical care) like conditioned weights and blood draws.

He continues to learn communication skills, including a dialect which helped him integrate with the belugas around him.

Belugas are extremely social animals, and the young depend on their pods to learn critical socialization and survival skills.

Study and Care of Tyonek Helps Scientists Better Understand Wild Beluga Populations

Using a microphone designed for underwater use, SeaWorld researchers recorded Tyonek’s vocalizations, which allowed scientists to monitor and observe his vocal behavior.

These recordings have contributed to research on the vocal development process and behavioral context of the various calls beluga whales make.

Researchers are using Tyonek’s vocal recordings to learn more about the vocal development process of Cook Inlet belugas and how to determine the approximate ages of individual belugas within their pods.

The hope is that these recordings will help scientists better understand the species’ population dynamics and reproduction trends.
SeaWorld San Antonio



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