Beluga calf at Georgia Aquarium: slow growth brings concern

Dr. Tonya Clauss, director of animal health at the Georgia Aquarium, checks the beluga calf's heart rate. The veterinarian is in the aquarium's medical pool, which is equipped with a lift bottom, allowing staff to stand while working with the belugas.

The baby beluga at Georgia Aquarium has passed some major milestones, but is still not out of the woods.

Born on May 10 – Mother’s Day — she began nursing in earnest at five days, and has become a good swimmer, keeping pace with her mother, Maris, according to aquarium staff.

Yet she has only gained a tiny amount from her birth weight of 126 pounds, a source of some concern.

“We’re pleased that her weight is stable,” said Eric Gaglione, director of zoological operations/mammals and birds. “We are hoping she will turn a corner soon, and we’ll be getting some good steady growth.”

While the calf, who has not yet been named, is successfully nursing 24 to 40 minutes a day, she weighs in at 127 pounds. For that reason the aquarium staff continues to supplement her nursing with a high-protein, high-fat liquid four or five times a day, via a tube that they slip down her throat and into her stomach. The liquid mimics the qualities of her mother’s breast milk.

Gaglione said the feeding procedure takes place in a medical pool with an underwater lift, which allows aquarium staff to stand while feeding the infant and also allows the mother, Maris, to stay with the calf during the process. He said Maris has grown to trust Dr. Tonya Clauss, director of animal health, and other staff members, over the last several weeks, though the mother beluga was nervous at first when staffers were near the infant.

The birth is significant: This calf is the first viable infant born to parents who, themselves, were born in human care, according to aquarium personnel. The baby’s father is Beethoven, who lived at the Georgia Aquarium for several years before being transferred to the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago on a breeding loan.

Georgia Aquarium’s other belugas, Qinu and Grayson, are being kept out of the infant beluga’s pool for the time being, until their caretakers are satisfied that the nursing calf won’t be distracted by their presence. All four belugas are currently off-exhibit.

Maris, who weighs 1,800 pounds, has gotten hungrier due to the extra demands of lactation, said nutritionist Lisa Hoopes.

The mother beluga was eating about 22 kilograms of herring and capelin a day toward the end of her pregnancy, but that amount has been increased to 40 kilograms, or about 88 pounds of fish. “She needs to mobilize a lot of energy to make that high fat milk,” said Hoopes, “so we’ve been ramping up her diet over last couple of days.”

Dr. Gregory Bossart, senior vice president and chief veterinary officer, said estimating the calf's chances of survival is difficult, in that conditions change every day.

"If it wasn’t for our team’s intervention to supplement the calf’s diet, I believe she would probably not be alive today," he said.

Visitors often ask Gaglione when they will get a look at the baby.

“The bottom line is we’re doing what’s in the best interest of the animal,” he said, “to minimize any distraction. We’re stressing patience, and patience has paid off. We are hopeful we’ll get to public viewing in the near future.”

Currently there is no “beluga cam” set up at the aquarium. In the meantime, one can see video here and on the Georgia Aquarium’s website.

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About the Author

Bo Emerson
Bo Emerson
Bo Emerson is an Atlanta native and a long-time AJC feature and news writer.