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Why Newborn Beluga Whale Died at Aquarium

Mother Maris with her baby at the Georgia Aquarium

The Georgia Aquarium is trying to explain why a newborn Beluga whale calf died there yesterday. But scientists aren’t buying the explanation.

“This was a very sudden loss,” said William Hurley, the aquarium’s chief animal officer. “Her blood indicators suggested her little body was working the way it was supposed to. The level of how critical she was improved every day.”

Officials at the aquarium are telling the media that it’s not unusual for first-born whale calves to die, whether in the wild or in captivity. As the Atlanta Journal Constitution faithfully and unquestioningly reported:

First-time pregnancies in belugas and other types of marine mammals are often unsuccessful both in captivity and in the wild.

But this a highly deceptive statement. First-time pregnancies have a higher-than-normal mortality rate in regions that suffer from extra-high pollution. That’s because whales and dolphins in highly polluted waters pass on a lifetime of accumulated toxins to their first-borns through their milk. But this does not apply in clean regions of the ocean, especially in the Southern Hemisphere. And it certainly would not be the case in a captive situation unless the aquarium itself is highly polluted.

Rather, the Georgia Aquarium is mixing apples and oranges and implying that the mother, known as Maris, was simply inexperienced – like it’s her fault that the baby didn’t survive.

Dr. Naomi Rose, senior scientist at Humane Society International and a leading expert on cetaceans, unpacks what the aquarium is saying:

The Georgia Aquarium is claiming that first-time mothers usually lose their calves – thus implying that it’s related to a lack of maternal experience, which absolves the aquarium of any responsibility in the death of the calf.

It’s true that first-time mothers in the wild do lack experience, but in natural cetacean populations, “aunties” assist with births, primiparous females tend to have their own mothers nearby, and basically the “village” raises all calves, first-born and otherwise. So, as long as the waters are not seriously polluted, the loss of first-born calves is only slightly higher than with subsequent births. In contaminated waters, the loss of first-born calves is nearly 100 percent.

So what the Georgia Aquarium is saying is simply another example of the captivity industry misleading the public in their “education”. They use real science and take it out of context to imply that there’s nothing wrong with the fact that so many captive female whales and dolphins lose their first-borns.

The reason for the high rate of mortality for whales and dolphins in captivity is that the mothers have no opportunity to learn from what would be their social group in the wild.

First time mothers truly have NO experience with competent maternal behavior, because they not only have had no calves themselves, but the females in their social group have no experience with natural, competent maternal behavior either. (Even if they have been successful raising one or more calves, this has almost been in spite of themselves).

In short, even when other females are allowed to remain with a first-time mother (and of course females are often isolated when pregnant or birthing, with only human caretakers at hand), it’s the blind leading the blind.

The Georgia Aquarium and other facilities that keep whales and dolphins in captivity need to own up to why so many calves die the way Maris’s baby did this week. The solution is to stop keeping Beluga whales in these completely unnatural situations.