In 2006 the first European beluga calf was born at Oceanogràfic in Valencia, Spain. This birth was a success considering the small population group maintained at the institution, consisting of just two individuals. However, the calf was unable to swim normally and was rejected by the mother. Hand rearing was attempted but the calf only survived the first 25 days.
Ten years later the female became pregnant again from the same resident male. The whole marine mammal and veterinary team was better prepared this time in case hand rearing was also required, including preparing several vials of concentrated immunoglobulin obtained from the blood of the two belugas on site. After a long gestation period of approximately sixteen and a half months, parturition was followed by aggressive behavior of the mother towards the calf, causing multiple injuries and requiring immediate intervention. The neonate showed an abnormal swimming pattern including positive buoyancy, arching, listing on one side and inability to submerge. After an initial health check up, antibiotic and analgesic therapy were administered and the skin wounds were treated before the calf was reintegrated with his mother under a controlled situation. However, maternal care was poor and nursing was not observed during the first hours, so 17h after birth maternal colostrum was provided via stomach tube. Additionally a total dose of 80 mg of purified IgG were given intramuscularly on days 2, 8 and 15.
Starting on day 3, formula was offered using a unique non-invasive hand-rearing technique based on connecting a 500 cc syringe containing the formula to a soft feeding tube that at the end was attached to a finger of the feeder. This way the plunger could be pressed to release milk right when suction was felt mimicking the natural process. A few hours after birth the skin from the dorsal surface of tail flukes started to slough leading to extensive superficial wounds that took several months to heal. One month after birth, the calf’s activity and physical condition improved, showing an almost normal swimming pattern and ability to dive.
Voluntary feeding was maintained from the beginning every two hours reaching up to 6 liters of formula per day. Daily weight gain was 0.5 kg/day close to the goal described for large cetacean species; besides a slightly lower estimated calorie intake (caloric content of the formula was 1.85 kcal/ml). The calf was weaned from formula at 10 months of age and close to his full weaning, he started to nurse from the mother on its own. The calf was vaccinated with Erysipelothrix rhusiopathiae bacterin, 2 ml intramuscularly at 17 months of age, with a booster three weeks apart.
The extensive time hand rearing the calf brought us the opportunity to develop significant research including studies in immunology, vocal development and cardio-respiratory physiology.
The survival of this calf has been a success, mainly due to the support of the international professionals, Vancouver Aquarium, Shedd Aquarium, SeaWorld San Antonio, San Diego and Florida, Georgia Aquarium and Mystic Aquarium that helped us to improve husbandry and monitoring procedures, facility modifications and veterinary advice. Special thanks to all the staff, trainers and veterinary team involved in the hand rearing of this beluga whale.
* Presenting author