Whale of a memory — Beluga calf experience lives on for rescuers

By Jenny Neyman

Photos courtesy of Indy Walton. Commercial fishermen rescue a newborn beluga calf found beached on South Naknek Beach in Bristol Bay this summer. From left are Don Ward, Tiffinie Helmer, Indy Walton, Shannon Ford and Curt Nelson.

Redoubt Reporter

Growing up commercial fishing in Alaska, you’re bound to have some memorable experiences with wildlife. For Indy Walton, of Soldotna, and Shannon Ford, of Seattle — owners of neighboring fishing sites in Bristol Bay — it takes something truly spectacular to top what they’ve already seen.

Ford started helping at her family’s fish camp on the south beach of the Naknek River when she was 9, and now runs the fourth-generation family set-net site. She’s had ravens nest on her cabin’s front porch, seen walruses in the wild and rescued an abandoned seal pup.

“At that point that was the coolest thing — to be able to hold a baby seal. Alaska has got a lot of great stuff,” she said.

Walton started at the family’s set-net site in Bristol Bay when he was a kid. Since he was 12 he spent his summers fishing with his uncle and grandfather at their set-net site in Alitak Bay on Kodiak, and went back to fishing in Bristol Bay after he got married to his wife, Stephanie, in 1993.

A lifetime of fishing nets a lifetime of notable wildlife encounters — foxes eating off your table, trying to deter brown bears from ransacking fish camp with a combination of rock-throwing and noisemaking with foghorns and M80s, a 300-pound salmon shark surfacing right next to your feet cooling in the water, freeing porpoises tangled in a net and having them cavort alongside your boat for a half hour afterward, and playing fetch with a herd of deer on the beach in Kodiak.

“They really liked this Frisbee, I don’t know why. So we’d take this Frisbee and throw it down the beach and they would all take off and chase down this Frisbee. And they’d all get around it in a circle and sniff it. Then I’d walk down there and they’d kind of move out of the way — they’d get skittish if you got close to them. Then I’d grab the Frisbee and throw it the other way and the whole herd — with fawns and does — would run down and chase it,” Walton said.

When rescuing a baby seal and playing fetch with deer are your benchmarks for interesting experiences, it takes something truly memorable to top it. Just such an incident occurred this summer, when Ford, Walton and their crews helped rescue a beached newborn beluga whale.

“I’ve been privileged to have a lot of really great animal experiences over my life, but that one, by far, I can’t imagine that being topped. To be able to be that close and be part of something like that, I will definitely never forget that little whale,” Ford said.

It was June 18, early in the season, and the weather was off to a dismal start.

The calf is kept in a trailer filled with seawater awaiting a flight to the Alaska SeaLife Center. Physical contact seemed to calm the day-old calf.

“It was blowing hard from the southwest, waves just rolling in on the beach,” Walton said. “It was just a nasty storm. It’s so shallow out there the tide goes out like a mile or two, so you would have layers of waves rolling in because it was so shallow and the wind was blowing so hard.”

Fishermen were still arriving and getting their set-net sites, drift boats and fish camps ready for salmon season. Ford and her boyfriend/crewman, Don Ward, had gone to town, the village of South Naknek — a drive down the beach, up a steep bluff and a couple miles along a gravel road. They were coming back down the bluff onto the beach when they spotted an immature bald eagle on the shoreline next to the old, closed-up Diamond O cannery. Something “vague” was lying next to it, Ford said.

“We at first assumed it was a fish, and then the tail flipped up in the air. Don said, ‘It’s a porpoise.’ That was our first thought,” Ford said. “We immediately parked the truck, jumped out and ran down there. The eagle flew off and there was what was clearly not a porpoise, but a baby beluga right there in the surf. And if we hadn’t come right then I know that eagle would have started to eat it, so it was pretty good timing.”

Belugas are known in the bay as being elusive, particularly since their grayish skin blends well with the turbid water at the mouths of the Naknek and Kvichak rivers. And they don’t breech or splash their tales like their more showboating cousins, humpbacks and killer whales. Even so, while the 12- to 15-foot, fish-eating whales aren’t an overly obvious sight in the bay, they also aren’t an unusual one.

“There’s no shortage of belugas out there,” Walton said. “At the mouth of the Kvichak it never fails, there are hundreds of them.”

But neither Ford, Walton, nor anyone at their camps had ever seen a beluga calf this young, this close up. Few people in the world ever have. “Baby” isn’t a fitting enough description. This calf was brand-new born, with its umbilical cord still attached. Along its sides were grooves in the skin, called seal folds, caused from the fetus being curled up in its mother’s womb. The folds smooth out just a few days after it is born.

At most the calf was only a day or two old, likely separated from its mother and washed ashore in the storm.

“The poor thing didn’t have a chance. The water, when it’s blowing that way, gets just

Rescuers used a fish tote filled with seawater to transport a newborn beluga whale from the beach where it was stranded to a Grant Aviation flight chartered to bring the whale to the SeaLife Center in Seward.

churned up and muddy, which was really about same color as the whale. So I could see, possibly the mother went into labor because of the trauma of the storm, or maybe she had had the calf the day before. But once it was separated there was no getting it back. And there was no getting it back into the water. Shannon and Don tried,” Walton said.

They didn’t have waders or clothes suited for getting in the water, but both splashed right up to the 5-foot-long, 100-pound calf anyway.

“Both of us together were able to kind of lift it off the rocks and help it when a wave came in to go back out with the wave, because we wanted to help it swim. We thought it was just beached,” Ford said.

Each time they got the calf floated and heading seaward with a wave, it would turn and get sloshed back up on the rocks.

“So we were really discouraged because that was the first thing we thought, ‘Let’s get it back out there to find its parents.’ We looked and looked and we could not see any beluga in the area. There was no sign of them or anything, it was just tide going out,” Ford said.

Ward stabilized the whale in the waves to keep it from abrading on the rocks while Ford pulled out her cellphone and hoped for good reception. She called the nearest U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office and within three calls was put in touch with the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, which operates a marine mammal stranding hotline and rescue program.

The wheels went immediately into motion. Part of the process was arranging a rescue flight out to South Naknek to retrieve the whale. The other part was getting permission to do so. This would be the first beluga calf rescue in the United States, at least since federal record-keeping began in 1972. If a calf that young were in captivity it couldn’t be released back to the ocean, since it wouldn’t be able to learn the survival skills needed in the wild. That means finding a place — and a budget — to take the calf for its possibly 35-year lifespan.

After an hour of waiting on updates from the SeaLife Center, Ford and Ward knew they had to do something with the calf.

“We were worried because the tide was going out quite rapidly and pretty soon we’d be out in the mud, and the whale’s skin was starting to abrade from the rocks. And it’s not supposed to rest on its organs like that, it’s supposed to float,” Ford said.

Over the phone, Tim Lebling, the Alaska SeaLife Center’s stranding coordinator, recommended getting the calf off the shore. While Ford rook a turn stabilizing the whale, Ward drove to the fish camp, loaded a fish tote into the truck and drove back to the whale. They filled the tote with seawater, loaded the beluga and drove it down the beach to camp, where it was instantly the center of all attention. But it was clear the tote was too small. The calf was scrunched up, having a hard time keeping its blowhole out of the water.

“He was stressed inside the tote and Tim said we needed to get him someplace else to try to reduce the stress, because if he’s moving around, he’s stressed,” Walton said.

Ford had a 6-foot aluminum trailer. They laid a tarp in it and the kids and teenagers among the fishing crews formed a bucket brigade to fill it with seawater to transfer the beluga.

“He was able to just lie there. He just stayed there and was calm as could be at that point,” Walton said.

“He seemed a lot happier. He was moving around and flipping his tail and he was making little clicking noises and whistling noises at us. It was really cool,” Ford said.

By early evening, Ford got word that a SeaLife Center crew was on its way, chartering a flight with Grant Aviation to fly to the airstrip in South Naknek. The fishermen loaded the beluga back into the tote in the truck and started the slow, careful drive to the airstrip, with extra seawater loaded up, just in case.

Both entire camps — Ford and Ward, the extended Walton family and a few others —

Tess and Tayt Helmer, two of the teenagers who helped rescue the whale calf, celebrate the calf being successfully transported to a charter flight to take it to the SeaLife Center in Seward.

caravanned along to see what is entailed in getting a sea creature ready to be airborne. At the airstrip, the SeaLife Center crew prepared the calf for transport, lying it on an air mattress and covering it in damp towels, and took off for the return trip to Seward.

As the excitement of the day spooled out, concern for the whale set in.

“We were pretty much figuring that the whale would not make the trip because something that fragile and that young and that wild, you just plan on that being the outcome,” Ford said.

But Lebling called back and said the flight went well and that the whale was being treated in quarantine at the center. Being such a rare case of such a young whale, staff members from the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and SeaWorld in San Diego came to help.

Rehabilitation was a difficult process. The calf had likely never had its mother’s milk, leaving it with a weak immune system and lacking those important antibodies. It had to be fed by a stomach tube while it learned to suckle from a bottle. After two weeks the prognosis was looking more promising — the whale, unofficially called Naknek, had gained 5 pounds and was beginning to get the hang of a bottle. But its health took a turn for the worse and it died around midnight July 8. A postmortem exam found infections, most damagingly around its heart and lungs.

“They did everything they could to save this whale’s life. It really shows the measure of their hearts and their compassion. We weren’t — obviously — able, trained or having any expertise to do anything other than what we did, just fish it out of the surf,” Walton said. “There were just a lot of people involved that did everything in their power to save that whale. I have to commend their generosity and their love of nature and compassion.”

While the fishermen had hoped against the odds for a better outcome for Naknek, the calf’s death didn’t negate all good to come from the event, Ford said.

“It has been such a wonderful thing of knowledge for the scientific community,” she said. “And it was a worldwide attention kind of thing, where they were able to get knowledge and experience of something that they had never done before, and it brought a lot of publicity and good attention to the SeaLife Center and the work that they do there. It’s kind of a remote location. Most people don’t really care outside of Alaska about Seward — you know, ‘Where’s that?’

“And also our tiny little bay. They were unofficially calling the whale Naknek. And it was really great because people all over the world can then understand that we have this amazing ecosystem with all these different kinds of creatures there that are important. All around we figured that, although it was sad the whale didn’t live, it was still a good thing that we were able to participate in,” she said.

For Walton, having his kids and the other youth of his family participate in an event like this is invaluable. Fishing, to him, has always been a way to teach life lessons and values.

“It’s a great way of life. It teaches so many things about problem-solving, about work, about getting along with others and helping everybody, because somebody always needs help, every day. Every day is just a new day of problems, and they may not be your problems, they might be somebody else’s, but you have the opportunity to help them,” Walton said.

Pulling together to help the whale calf is exactly the sort of thing Walton hopes his kids, Dagen, Bristol, Dylan and, and niece and nephew, Tess and Tayt, learn from.

“Part of the neatest thing for me was seeing my kids experience it. Having these experiences with wildlife, knowing that you had an opportunity to help save this whale’s life. It puts you in tune to what’s real, what’s important in life,” he said. “These kids will never forget that experience. In their eyes they helped save the whale. Even though it didn’t make it, those are experiences you can’t put a price on, and I know that this experience touched their hearts.”

For information on the Alaska SeaLife Center, visit www.alaskasealife.org.

The marine mammal stranding hotline can be reached at 1-888-774-7325.

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