5 beluga whales flown from Canada make a splash at new home in Mystic

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May 16—In the glow of the moonlight late Friday night, a flash of bright white wriggled against the dark sky — a young beluga whale named Jetta, being lifted by a crane.

Jetta and two other belugas from Canada flew into Groton-New London Airport on a private plane Friday afternoon and received a police escort to their new home: Mystic Aquarium. Two more whales caught the next flight out and made the same journey early Saturday.

The whales, all between 5 and 6 years old, were brought to Mystic from Marineland in Ontario, Canada, where they were living in an overcrowded tank with 47 other beluga whales.

Mystic Aquarium has been involved in a yearslong process of moving the whales to their spacious new home, the Arctic Coast habitat, joining the aquarium's three resident belugas: Juno, an 18-year-old male; Natasha, a 41-year-old female; and Kela, a 40-year-old female. Their goal is to work with the whales to pioneer new research methods that will help protect and save wild beluga populations.

"These animals are really, truly ambassadors for their wild counterparts," said Allison Tuttle, vice president of biological programs at Mystic Aquarium, who traveled to Canada and flew back with two of the whales.

The whales will be a part of non-invasive research at the aquarium that is meant to help with conservation efforts to protect wild belugas. The decision to transport the whales to Mystic from Canada has been a controversial one, however, with many animal rights groups speaking out against the move. The Canadian government this past week approved a permit that allowed the transport to move forward.

Jetta was joined on Friday by travel companions Havana and Kharabali, both females, on the flight from Hamilton International Airport to Groton. After some delays, the plane touched down about 5:45 p.m., and the whales — kept in large, open-air cargo containers filled with water — were loaded off the plane and onto the flatbeds of three waiting trucks.

It took about 2 1/2 hours to fly the first three whales from the Niagara Falls area to Groton and another three to four hours to get them each from the tarmac to the tank. Jetta is 762 pounds and 10 feet 2.8 inches long, Havana is 924 pounds and 10 feet 3.6 inches, and Kharabali is 818 pounds and 10 feet 7.6 inches.

The last two whales, Havok and Sahara, arrived at Hamilton airport about 6 p.m., and aquarium staff said they arrived at the aquarium about 5 a.m.

Held in hammock-like holders inside their containers — with cut-outs on the sides for their fins — the whales made their journey in a C-130 cargo aircraft operated by Lynden Air Cargo with a team of aquarium staff members that included veterinarians and zoologists. They were met at the airport by local police, state police and agents from Customs and Border Protection.

Accompanied by a police escort, three flatbed trucks with the large blue cargo containers fastened on the back, each carrying a beluga, made their way from the airport to the aquarium about 9 p.m. to deliver the first three whales. A few dozen employees and volunteers from Mystic Aquarium, clad in bright blue hardhats, stood under a tall crane and applauded as the trucks rolled into the parking lot. When all three vehicles had parked, the employees and volunteers quickly rushed over to start the process of getting the whales safely into their new habitat.

One by one, the whales were lifted out of their cargo containers by a crane, their fins and flukes flapping as water dripped down onto the pavement. They were gently placed onto a rolling cart, which was pushed speedily across the parking lot and into the Arctic Coast habitat, where another crane waited to place the whales into the pool.

The Arctic Coast habitat is a 750,000-gallon pool — large enough to fill Gillette Stadium — broken up into three separate sections. The whales were first released into the medical area, then allowed to swim into the holding area where the trio swam in circles together, cresting the service and calling out to their new neighbors.

The whales, who are not yet fully grown, will live at the aquarium for at least five years. They will be a part of studies that will help scientists better understand why belugas — especially those living in Cook Inlet off the coast of Alaska — are endangered.

Tuttle said one of the things they'll be studying is how whales respond to sound. Due to climate change, she said, ships are traveling through Arctic channels that were previously blocked by ice. It's unclear now how whales that live in these waters will be impacted by the sounds those ships make. The belugas in Mystic will be safely tested to see how they respond when exposed to such sounds in a controlled way that doesn't stress or scare them.

The whales also will be trained to provide biological samples, including blood, feces, and saliva from their blow holes, which will help scientists collect more data on beluga whale health in a safe, non-invasive way.

"This will allow us to study animals in the wild without handling them," Tuttle said. "This is very important work that will allow us to conduct important research about these animals in the wild."

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Right now, she said, blood tests are the "gold standard" for determining if an animal is healthy in the wild, but it isn't always easy to obtain a sample from a wild animal.

The studies were built off a framework released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which published a list of things it would be helpful to know about beluga whales. The team at the aquarium took parts of that list and developed plans to collect data that would help NOAA in its efforts.

"It feels really exciting to be able to continue research that not only expands the body of scientific knowledge we have but also will help us protect endangered populations of these animals," Tuttle said.

Animal rights groups in opposition

Several animal rights organizations petitioned Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans to reconsider issuing the export permit request. The groups say the transport violated the intent of a 2019 Canadian law meant to phase out the captivity of whales by banning their breeding.

The organization Last Chance for Animals asked the Canadian government to deny the permit, saying the transfer would violate the law in addition to endangering the animals. They also said that the lengthy transfer would be stressful and would result in the animals breaking social bonds with other belugas at Marineland.

The organization issued a statement Friday condemning the transfer.

"The (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau government promised to protect the whales under the Ending the Captivity of Whales and Dolphins Act, and now they are betraying the whales and exporting their commitment. What they are ending is their commitment toward protecting these whales," LCA's Canadian attorney Miranda Desa said.

According to Daniel Pesquera from the aquarium's Boston-based public relations firm, Regan Communications, moving the animals was in the best interest of the five whales and their species.

"The import permit is partly to get them into a situation where they'll be in a better habitat with more individualized care," he said. "And also to get them into a habitat that's especially designed for research on beluga whales that will help larger populations of whales in the wild."

The whales were monitored before, during and after the transport by teams of specialists who were tracking not only their physical condition, but also their emotional well-being, aquarium President and CEO Stephen Coan said. The teams on the plane monitored their breathing, heart rates and hormones, he said, adding that the animals' stress and well-being is always a concern.

"If we weren't concerned about that, we'd be irresponsible," he said.

After the first flight landed, Tuttle said Jetta, Havana and Kharabali "were doing really well" and arrived happy and healthy.

She noted Friday's transport was an exciting, invigorating culmination of years of work.

She also stressed that all five of the whales were born and raised in captivity and that, because of that, releasing them into the wild was not an option. They never learned to survive in the wild or hunt for food and would likely die if set free in the ocean.

Mystic Aquarium, Tuttle and Cohen said, does not condone the capture of wild animals and had no plans to breed more belugas to be born in captivity.

One of the conditions of the permit being granted was that procreation among the whales must be prohibited. Coan said the aquarium has developed a complex plan to prevent the whales from breeding, including tracking the female whales' ovulation cycles and separating them from the males during those times.

Coan said that Mystic Aquarium doesn't have plans to rehome any more of the belugas currently living at Marineland, but plans to continue communication and offer support to the theme park as it moves forward with what is best for all the whales in its care.

The five new whales in Mystic will be introduced to their new roommates — the aquarium's three resident belugas — at their own pace. The animals will see one another through plexiglass barriers at first as the new whales acclimate to their surroundings. They also will be able to communicate while they remain separated. Then, they'll slowly be introduced into living in the same waters.

It's not yet clear when aquarium visitors will be able to see the new whales.

"The answer is that the animals are going to tell us when they're ready (to be in the same pool)," Tuttle said. "Sometimes they get comfortable much more quickly than we think, other times it takes a little longer. But our priority is what is best for the animals. We want to make sure they're happy in their new home at Mystic Aquarium."

Getting acclimated

Tom Clay, a former nuclear machinist at Electric Boat, joined the team at Mystic Aquarium over 20 years ago. About seven years ago, he took on a new role that proved pivotal this week: crane operator.

Clay was in charge of operating a small crane inside the beluga habitat on Friday night and Saturday morning. His job was to lift the belugas from the rolling cart they were brought in on and get them safely into the water.

The process was smooth, Clay said. Though some of the whales wriggled around a bit, they were safely secured and all made it into their new home without any issues.

"It feels great. There's always a lot of stress because we prepare for every possible risk, but everyone here just rallied together, and whatever is thrown at us, we get through it," said Clay.

By Saturday afternoon, all five whales were together, able to roam freely between the medical pool and holding pool.

Havok was "feeling a little shy" but was in good health, said Coan.

"They're acting really positively, they're swimming with each other and appear to be in good spirits," said Coan. "We're hoping Havok will acclimate over the next couple of days."

The whales were being monitored 24/7 by aquarium staff. Erin Gibbons, assistant supervisor of pinnipeds at the aquarium, had been at work since 8 a.m. on Friday helping with the transfer. At 2 p.m. on Saturday, she was still by the tank watching the whales.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime — at least a once-in-a-career — experience so we're all so excited," she said.

Gibbons said she cried tears of joy when the first whale, Jetta, made it safely to her new home Friday night.

"It was definitely emotional, and there were tears of joy," said Gibbons. "The way the community really rallied around this cause, the effort from everyone at the aquarium and the conservation message of what we're going to be able to do with research of these animals just makes our job that much more meaningful."

Gibbons, who had been observing the whales, said they were interacting each other and playing with their enrichment toys in the water. Shortly after their arrival, the first three whales dined on herring and squid — their willingness to eat was a great sign, staff said.

Day Staff Writer Joe Wojtas contributed to this report.

t.hartz@theday.com