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A Beluga Pod’s Journey

On the evening of May 14, the sun began to cast its orange hues across the Arctic Coast exhibit. Juno the beluga whale echoes a foghorn-like noise through the aquarium, and the sea lion barks settled down as the marine mammals pile onto each other, preparing for a good night’s rest. Aquarium staff and partners chat amongst themselves in the Milne Ocean Science and Conservation Center, holding in their excitement. The cranes and transport stretchers were in position. All they could do is wait. At the Groton-New London Airport, veterinarians, trainers, and researchers look towards the skies, knowing nothing is coming yet. Semi-trucks, police cars, and forklifts line up next to the landing strip. The air was calm, but suspense loomed throughout Mystic. After years of anticipation, the call finally comes in. The belugas are on their way!

Leaving Canada

Transporting beluga whales from Canada to Mystic Aquarium is a tremendous feat that took years of planning logistics. The import officially launched with Mystic Aquarium submitting the Application to Import Beluga Whales for Scientific Research to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service division (NMFS). As one of the leaders in beluga research, the aquarium would become the leader in the discipline with the new additions. Ultimately, the goal is to benefit wild beluga populations. Based on the research goals, the permit was approved. Later, the Canadian Federal Liberal Fisheries Minister granted a second permit.

The transport planning proceeded, but unexpected challenges pushed the occasion back. By early spring, no even a global pandemic would stop the beluga pod from reaching Connecticut. Masked up and determined, Mystic Aquarium staff flew to Canada to prepare the cetaceans. These belugas were selected based on their social bonds and ability to adapt to change. Even with these traits, the pod was born and only lived in Marineland Canada. This transport is unlike any experience they faced. Monitoring their health and stress levels is vital throughout the process, and it began upon the veterinarian’s arrival. In the days leading up, the beluga whales learned to swim on a stretcher specially designed for their body. Almost like a whale-sized hammock, the white material extends for the full-body length of the beluga. Two holes provide space for pectoral flippers to stick out. The stretcher secures the whales and their safety. Finally, the whales were ready. Each beluga swam into their designated stretcher. Once in position, a crane lifted them safely out of the water and into blue containers. The beluga touched icy water again in the container and becoming suspended to support their weight. The beluga is not alone. Soon-to-be-familiar faces join them within the containers. Mystic trainers and veterinarians accompany the animals monitoring them every step of the way.

Once the carrier secures on the truck trailer, the truck tires roll, setting the beluga’s journey in motion. A caravan of cars escorts the first three belugas to the airport. A careful transfer settles the three animals onto a Lynden Airlines Charter C-130/L-382 Hercules aircraft. The plain engine start, the craft roll forward, and the belugas take flight! High in the air, the cabin caters to an Arctic mammal. The room remains pressurized to 4,000 feet, and temperatures hover around 55 degrees Fahrenheit. High in the air, beluga experts continue to monitor the health of the belugas. Scientists collect saliva samples to study. The research continues even in the sky.

Belugas Touch Down

At the New London airport, team members wait to perform their role flawlessly. Traffic control alters the team that the touchdown is in 20 minutes, and the moment is near. Trainers pull their arms through their wetsuits, and Researchers prepare the swabs. The gentle breeze whips up into gust as a cargo plane descends to the welcome party. On cue, everyone acts. A semi backs up to the craft, and the driver attaches cables onto a beluga container. The hook pulls it onto the trailer. The second container joins the first one. While another truck receives the final blue holder, a forklift organizes the other two securing them on different vehicles. While nightfall descends on the team, police lights began to flash, and the cop car pulls towards the exit. The trucks, aquarium vans, and other police cars follow, leading out Groton and towards Mystic.

Outside the aquarium, lights illuminate the line of trainers standing next to a large crane. Each person is wearing a hard hat and ready to assist in the final step. The trucks arrive in the parking lot, and the first drive aligns the container next to the crane. Staff immediately take action and secure the beluga. The whale lifts from her container and onto the transport stretcher. Together, trainers push the 762 Ib whale to Beluga Beach. Another crane waits for her and hoists the whale again once she is secure. As she moves towards the medical pool, staff members help stabilize her with ropes. She is gentle lower towards another group who eases her back in the water.

With a large splash, she swims for the first time in the Arctic Coast habitat. After she settles down, the gate opens, and she swims to the holding pool. The second and third whales immediately join her. Reunited, they swim together, exploring their new surroundings. Veterinarians monitor the new belugas, and the cargo plane returns to Canada. Meantime, three cetacean onlookers begin to peek through the clear gate at the new arrivals, occasionally vocalizing to them.

The plane arrives back in Connecticut, finishing the second transport. The ground transport repeats. By 4:50 a.m., all belugas are home and safe. Throughout the week, trainers, veterinarians, and researchers take shifts to monitor the belugas. Taking samples, recording their actions, and performing health checks determines that the belugas are adjusting to their new environment.

Acclimating to Mystic

The belugas begin their sessions with trainers. Since the whales are new to individualize care, establishing relationships with trainers was the first step to acclimating them to their new home. Trainers positions themselves in a location around the habitat, and the whales become used to swimming to the same area. A shape is introduced to the beluga to help them know where to go during sessions. Each session builds on the other until the whales learn actions allowing for health checks and sample collections. Researchers collect many samples, including skin swaps, blowhole samples, blood, and fecal samples. Since they are juvenile whales, their attention span can be short. Breaks are necessary. Staff members are discovering each belugas quirks and how to make their time together more fun! The belugas will even stick around to interact with trainers when the sessions end.

When staff is not directly interacting with them, it is playtime! The belugas play with a plethora of enrichment toys. These objects can include balls and kelp strips. They love to swim with the toys on their melons or around their flippers. The pod will play with each other and interact with the other three whales. Chirps and whistles communicate with each other. On occasions, Juno and the whales will pass thin toys to each other. By the first month, it became clear that the whales were thriving. Each beluga was expressing her personality and full of energy. After 33 days, the belugas were ready to integrate with the other three.

Social Mixer

On the day of the beluga mixer, the morning sun glistens on the chilly water. The metal rods lift, and the gates push open. Three juvenile whales dart out from the back area into the main section. Juno, the adult male whale, greets them. Intimidated, they swim back. Both sides remain unsure of what to do. The bravest among them gains the courage to swim back into the main pool. She loops back inside. She attempts again and swims further. Her bravery shines through as she explores more on each outing. On some trips, other juveniles join her. Finally, the three adult belugas decide to join the juvenile belugas in the back. For the first time, all whale swims together as one pod. During the weekend, the newcomers become more accustomed to the Main Pool and move about without hesitation.

After the successful integration, the belugas completed their journey. The pod started in an overcrowded habitat. From the rough situation, the whales rode down streets and took flight. Their travels brought them to Mystic Aquarium. Here, they had room to express themselves, make new friends, and begin research to save their wild counterparts.

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