Baltimore's belugas are moved to San Antonio

March 19, 1992|By Michael James and Bruce Reid | Michael James and Bruce Reid,Staff Writers

The National Aquarium's two remaining beluga whales joined the largest captive population of the species today -- at Sea World in San Antonio, Texas.

Kia and Sikku arrived by plane about 10 a.m. (EST) at Kelly Air Base, about 12 miles from Sea World, said general curator Glenn Young. The animals, which were monitored en route by veterinarians, were not showing any problems, he said.

"Everything is going according to plan. There's been nothing unusual," Mr. Young said.

The whales were placed in acclimation tanks apart from the other belugas, where they will stay for an undetermined number of days.

At 1:30 a.m. today, the whales were loaded into watertight boxes at the Baltimore aquarium and trucked to Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

About 6 a.m., they were put aboard a Southern Air Transport flight headed for the Lone Star state.

"We'll be accused of being clandestine for doing it in the middle of the night, but it really is the best time for them," said Chris Andrews, the Baltimore aquarium's animal director.

Kia and Sikku were silent and appeared calm as they waited in their boxes to be trucked to BWI. The loading process, using a crane to hoist the half-ton mammals from their tank, took 35 minutes.

"I didn't hear them make a sound," said Mr. Andrews, who said the animals' monitored respiration did not show any signs of distress. "They're not used to being moved, but I think they were very calm."

Aquarium officials say the Dec. 23 death of a third beluga, named Anore, brought on the movement of Kia and Sikku. Anore apparently was killed by one of the aquarium's six bottlenosed dolphins during a training exercise.

"We didn't want to risk another problem, and we knew we were going to need more space," said aquarium spokesman Vicki Aversa. The aquarium now will focus on the raising and training of its dolphins, she said.

Aquarium officials say the movement occurred at night so the water temperature in the shipment tanks would remain stable. Also, much less traffic was on the road between the aquarium and BWI, so the chances of having an accident were reduced.

The time of the move had nothing to do with protesters, Ms. Aversa said.

Animal-rights activists have opposed keeping whales and dolphins in captivity and showing them in performances, saying both do psychological and even physical harm to the animals.

Moving the whales is another sore point. Activists argue that the event can be traumatic and terrifying for the mammals.

Mr. Andrews, who came to the aquarium last year after serving as an administrator at the London Zoo, said he was no stranger to controversy over moving large animals.

"The anti-zoo extremists were always after us about elephants and the larger primates, like gorillas and apes, and sometimes even bears," he said. "The extremists are a very noisy minority. There's a lot of misinformation floating about."

A team of experts from Sea World arrived in Baltimore on Monday to assist with the move to the Texas facility, where the whales' new home will be a 2 million-gallon tank shared with 10 other belugas. About one-third of the belugas in captivity are at Sea World -- the world's largest captive population.

Kia and Sikku will be on "breeding loan" to Sea World, and the National Aquarium reserves the right to their offspring. But it is unlikely that beluga whales, which have been part of the city aquarium since 1988, will be returning to Baltimore any time soon, Mr. Andrews said.

No beluga whale deaths have been reported at Sea World, although a killer whale died there last week while it was delivering a stillborn offspring.

Protesters also have cited the Sea World's chain of marine theme parks' inability so far to successfully breed the beluga whale in captivity.

John M. Jarkowiec, the senior mammalogist who cared for Kia and Sikku -- whose names mean "Whose is it?" and "Ice" in the Inuit Indian language -- said he expected that the pair would adapt well to their new surroundings.

"Whales are very mellow," he said.

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