French marine experts attempted yesterday to rescue a beluga whale that swam up the Seine river and return it to the sea, officials said, a complex and risky operation for an animal already sick and malnourished.
The 4m (13’) cetacean, a protected species usually found in cold Arctic waters, was spotted a week ago heading towards Paris, and is now some 130km (81 miles) inland: it had swum nearly halfway to Paris before local authorities confined the all-white whale in a large lock system at Saint-Pierre-La-Garenne in Normandy.
It was unclear why the whale had strayed so far from its natural habitat.
“An operation to transport the beluga astray in the Seine will be attempted this evening,” said government officials in the Eure department, who are orchestrating the effort, yesterday.
The animal’s health has deteriorated after it refused to eat.
However, its condition is currently “satisfactory”, Isabelle Brasseur of the Marineland sea animal park in southern France, Europe’s biggest, told AFP.
She is part of a Marineland team sent to assist with the rescue, alongside the Sea Shepherd France NGO.
“What’s exceptional is that here the banks of the Seine are not accessible for vehicles ... everything is going to have to be done by hand,” Brasseur said.
So far the beluga has not turned around, and experts have dismissed any attempt to “nudge” it back toward the English Channel with boats, saying that it would stress the weakened animal and probably be futile in any case.
Starting around 8pm (1800 GMT), the team attempted to get the animal weighing 800kg (nearly 1,800 pounds) onto a refrigerated truck and drive it to an undisclosed seawater basin where it can be treated for several days before being released into the open sea, the Eure authorities said.
“There it will, we hope, have a better chance of survival,” said NGO Sea Shepherd France, which is assisting the operation, yesterday.
It added that tranquillisation is not an option, since belugas are so-called “voluntary breathers” that need to be awake to inhale air.
“In any case, we have to get it out of there ... and try to figure out what is wrong,” Brasseur said.
Veterinarians will keep constant watch during the move.
“There may be internal problems that we can’t see,” she said, despite the fact that belugas are “extremely hardy” as a species.
Interest in the beluga’s fate has spread far beyond France, generating a large influx of financial donations and other aid from conservation groups as well as individuals, officials said.
On Monday Sea Shepherd issued a public appeal in particular for heavy-duty ropes, nets, mattresses and other equipment.
Belugas are normally found only in cold Arctic waters, and while they migrate south in the autumn to feed as ice forms, they rarely venture so far.
According to France’s Pelagis Observatory, specialised in sea mammals, the nearest beluga population is off the Svalbard archipelago, north of Norway, 3,000km from the Seine.
The trapped whale is only the second beluga ever sighted in France.
The first was pulled out of the Loire estuary in a fisherman’s net in 1948.
Onlookers watch as workers take part in the rescue operation of the beluga whale.