She was born in the artificially chilled waters of the Georgia Aquarium, wiggling to the surface to take her first breath. On Friday, she took her last.
The baby beluga whale born to Maris and Beethoven was born on Mother’s Day. The nameless little mammal was 3 weeks, 5 days old.
She was the second beluga calf to die at the aquarium in three years.
The infant’s death rocked staff workers who had cared for her, said Georgia Aquarium CEO and chairman Mike Leven. In her final hours, they’d monitored her health around the clock. The beluga exhibit has been closed to the public until the aquarium deems reopening in the best interest of the animals.
“While we recognize death is part of the natural cycle of life,” Leven said in a statement, “this remains a difficult loss for the entire aquarium team.”
Yet her death was hardly a surprise; despite the best efforts of her caretakers, the infant didn’t thrive. On Thursday, Dr. Gregory Bossart, the aquarium’s chief veterinarian, said the calf was in “extremely guarded condition.”
On Friday, after a preliminary examination of the dead calf, Bossart said Maris’ offspring had “gastrointestinal issues” that prevented her from growing into a healthy baby. The calf weighed 126 pounds when Maris delivered her. She had not gained significant weight since.
The cause of death, the aquarium said in a statement, may remain a mystery.
It wasn’t a mystery to Lori Marino, a specialist in cetaceans, or marine mammals. A former Emory University lecturer, she’s the founder of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy Inc. For years, Marino has urged the aquarium to stop displaying Delphinapterus leucas, the Latin name for the whale species.
No beluga, infant or mature, can thrive in an artificial environment, she said.
“They created the conditions that caused the baby to be in trouble to begin with,” said Marino. “I hope they take this to heart. How many babies can Maris afford to lose?”
This is her second. Maris’ first calf, born in May 2012, didn’t live a week. Also a female, that calf was born underweight and hardly capable of swimming.
Prospects for the second calf seemed much brighter — so much that the aquarium released a video of her birth. The three-minute presentation is a study in a whale’s grace, an organization’s hopes. It begins with the calf’s birth — a little gray thing popping out of her mother and zipping to the surface. Mom is right behind her, sticking her big head under the newborn to help it remain afloat.
It concludes with the two swimming side by side, with happy music in the background. In one of the last shots, Maris looks over her massive shoulder to check on her newborn. The calf swims hard to catch up.