Beluga gives birth in San Antonio


October 01, 1993|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Staff Writer

The untimely death of a beluga whale at Baltimore's National Aquarium has led to the rare captive birth of another at a Sea World park in San Antonio.

Kia -- one of the two surviving female belugas sent to Texas last year -- delivered her estimated 125-pound male calf Saturday morning. It was the third birth for the Sea World park's burgeoning beluga population in less than two weeks, and a record event for captive breeding programs.

Baltimore's aquarium decided to give up the popular marine mammal species after another beluga, Anore, was killed in December 1991 by an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, which apparently rammed her during a training exercise in the amphitheater show tank. Survivors Kia and Sikku were sent on a permanent breeding loan to Sea World in March 1992, while the Baltimore attraction opted to concentrate on dolphins.

Sea World's beluga births, and another this summer at the Aquarium for Wildlife Conservation in Brooklyn, N.Y., come at a time when the Canadian government has banned the export of the small whale species -- in part the result of efforts by animal rights organizations opposed to the captive display of marine mammals.

The animals' keepers cite education and research in justifying the captivity, and for now must rely on breeding programs to increase the number of belugas, which are chiefly an arctic species found in substantial numbers along the northern Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

Louis E. Garibaldi, director of the New York institution, said the births at Sea World bring the total number of known captive belugas to 44 -- all but 3 of them in North America.

Until 1991, most belugas born in captivity did not survive longer than a few months. Mr. Garibaldi said two males born in New York that year are thriving, while a female born this July appears to be in good health. And Sea World officials reported that the three newborn calves, and another born last year in San Antonio, all male, are doing well.

Chris Andrews, the National Aquarium's senior director of husbandry and operations, and other experts attribute the recent successes to improved holding facilities, animal age and human experience.

"Many of the animals that we have in oceanariums are now coming to maturity. We're seeing more births and keeping animals in larger social groups, which is more advantageous to the offspring," he said. "And we're beginning to understand more about them."

"To date," said Mr. Garibaldi in New York, "14 beluga whales have conceived in aquarium collections, 12 gave live births, and 7 [of the offspring] are still alive today."

The animals seem to fare better and reproduce more readily in larger groups, experts say. "The hypothesis," Mr. Garibaldi said, "is that the dominant male needs to be challenged by a younger animal to be successful as a breeder. You need the young buck to stimulate the old bull."

Sea World, which has four parks around the country, has concentrated all its belugas in San Antonio in a partitioned, 2 million-gallon tank shared with Pacific white-sided dolphins. Glenn Young, the park's general curator, said the two species are together only during performances and there has been no problem like Baltimore's incident.

The tank's beluga population soared to 16 with the September births. "We have room for quite a few more," Mr. Young said.

Until their move to Texas last year, the belugas had been one of the Baltimore aquarium's top attractions -- animals particularly appealing for their seeming playfulness as they mimicked human behavior and intentionally splashed water onto watchers standing below their tank. The large beluga mouth seems cast in a perpetual goofy smile.

"The staff here at the aquarium were saddened when the belugas went away. They were very close to the staff and to our members and visitors," Mr. Andrews said. "But there is no question in our mind that sacrifice was worth making.

"These are social animals and need to be kept in groups. People often speak about zoos and aquariums cooperating. This is a very good example that the sacrifice you are making is of benefit to the species."

Mr. Andrews added, "If anybody has any doubts about the benefits, they only have to come and see how children react to being close to a marine mammal they have perhaps only seen on film or in a book."

Sea World and other aquariums with breeding programs are keeping genetic histories of their animals for the decisions that will be necessary to avoid inbreeding of the belugas.

Eventually, said Mr. Garibaldi, a consortium of zoos and aquariums will "recommend the relocation of animals to strive for maximum [genetic] diversity."

Whether any of the creatures eventually comes to Baltimore's aquarium -- which technically has claim to Kia's calf -- is unknown.

"Since we're focusing on dolphins right now, I don't see the beluga whales coming here in the near future," said aquarium spokeswoman Vicki Aversa.

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