The beluga whale that was observed swimming in the Seine river in Eure, Normandy last week is to be transported to an area of salt water to undergo a healing period, experts have said.
The move will happen today (August 9), and was confirmed by the Eure prefecture yesterday (August 8) at a press conference.
A spokesperson said: “It appears possible for us to think about moving it. Vets and researchers have indicated that in the interests of the animal, it is worth a try. We are working hard on it. Our aim is to release it as quickly as possible.”
Lamya Essemlali, the president of ocean protection NGO Sea Shepherd France, said: “Today’s major operation will consist of moving the beluga, which is more than 150km away from the sea, towards a salt area of water, which is better adapted to its physiology, so it can benefit from medical surveillance and healing.
“We need to determine if the illness that it has, and which is stopping it from eating, is something that we can help it with, or if its illness is incurable.”
Éclaircissements autour des choix et décisions concernant le béluga dans la Seinehttps://t.co/EobMeIbeQ7— Sea Shepherd France (@SeaShepherdFran) August 9, 2022
Experts have already made several unsuccessful attempts to feed the animal, which is “very skinny”, the prefecture said.
Yesterday, the beluga appeared in a stationary state, and each day it does not eat will weaken it further. It is still in the lock of Saint-Pierre-La-Garenne.
Ms Essemlali said: “We have not seen a worsening of its state. It is still alert, but it is still not eating.”
In a Tweet, Sea Shepherd said: “The beluga is still not feeding but it continues to be curious. At about 04:00 he rubbed himself for 30 minutes on the walls of the lock and got rid of the spots that had appeared on his back. The antibiotics also helped.”
Le béluga ne s'alimente (à priori) toujours pas mais il continue de se montrer curieux. Vers 4 h du matin il s'est frotté pendant 30 minutes sur les parois de l'écluse et s'est débarrassé des tâches qui étaient apparues sur son dos. Les antibiotiques ont également pu aider. pic.twitter.com/VIyZ9mWNN5— Sea Shepherd France (@SeaShepherdFran) August 8, 2022
Beluga whales are more used to cold seawater, and a long stay in river water, which is very warm and stagnant compared to its usual habitat, will be dangerous for its health.
In a bid to help the operation and ongoing care of the whale, a three-person team from Marineland in Antibes (Alpes-Maritimes) is set to be on-site in Eure by this evening.
It will include “a vet specialising in marine mammals”, said Isabelle Brasseur, manager for education, research and conservation at Marineland.
She said: “We have been following operations from a distance since the beginning. We are moving forward step by step. There is no ideal solution. We have to weigh the pros and cons, and analyse the advantages and the disadvantages.”
The beluga is the third whale to be seen in the Seine river in recent months, notably after an orca died in May after entering the waterway while sick.
Why are whales entering the Seine?
There is not yet a consensus on why whales appear to be entering the river.
Ms Essemlali, of Sea Shepherd, told France 3: "Noise pollution is the first suspect. Humans often tend to underestimate maritime noise pollution. Cetaceans use sonar to move around and communicate with each other. This is essential for their survival.
“However, noise pollution disorients them and in the worst case scenario, it can cause lesions, [and even] internal bleeding.”
She added that the intense maritime traffic near Le Havre estuary [leading out to the sea] can cause noise pollution too, and said: “There is also the construction of the wind farm off Courseulles-sur-Mer. We know that these construction sites are extremely noisy.
“It is feared that the deployment of offshore wind farm projects on the French coastline, particularly in protected areas, will have catastrophic consequences for marine life.”
However, Gérard Mauger, vice-president of the Cotentin cetacean study group le groupe d'études des cétacés du Cotentin (GECC), said that it was still not clear “what was causing this phenomenon”.
He said: “Their presence probably has nothing to do with the Seine. Both animals were sick for a long time before they arrived. The wind turbines probably don’t have much to do with it.”
Similarly, in a statement, mammal and bird observatory group Pelagis said that there is currently no clear “hypothesis for the moment regarding the presence of these cetaceans in the Seine”.
The statement added: “These cases of wandering remain unusual and unexplained, with probably multiple reasons, such as health status, age, social isolation, and environmental conditions.”
It said that the added visibility of the events in recent years due to social media may appear to make the issue look more common.
"In the past, there have been other sightings, often of more common species on our coasts, but at times when there was less pressure from the media and social networks,” it said.
In France, it is relatively common to see marine mammals far from their usual habitat, including walruses, harp seals, bearded seals, and right whales.
And in 2016, a narwhal (which is from the same family as the beluga whale) was also found dead near a lock in the Scheldt river in Belgium.
In 2018, a beluga whale stayed for three months in the Thames Estuary in England before disappearing.