Beluga calf’s death the latest in series of losses at Georgia Aquarium

Hearts are grieving at the Georgia Aquarium.

Qinu, the pregnant beluga whale, lost her calf on Tuesday.

The 9-year-old, pale-skinned, arctic creature went into labor Tuesday morning, but experienced complications, according to a statement from the aquarium. The infant did not survive.

“The position and shape of the calf prevented the delivery and it was determined the calf had died before it had a chance to be born,” the aquarium said in a statement.

“Our veterinary and animal care teams intervened for the safety of Qinu and worked around the clock to carefully remove the calf.”

The death is the latest in a series of losses for the downtown attraction.

Two other newborn belugas have died at the aquarium, one in May 2012, the other in June 2015, both of them offspring of the facility's beluga matriarch, Maris. Then Maris herself died in October of 2015 of heart failure.

She was 21.

Later in 2015 the aquarium announced it would abandon its plan to grow the beluga collection with wild-caught specimens.

For years the aquarium sought to bring wild-caught belugas into the United States from a facility in Russia. It applied for a permit to import the whales in 2012, investing millions in their care, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration denied the permit, writing that such an action could spur more international trade in the endangered ocean mammals.

>> RELATED VIDEO: Georgia Aquarium gives up fight to import beluga whales

Since then the aquarium’s breeding program has also hit setbacks.

Qinu, 9 years old, was a first-time mother. She was still an adolescent when she came to Atlanta from Sea World San Antonio in 2010. In June, aquarium officials announced she was pregnant.

Aquarium staff worked steadily for months to be ready for the birth, executing practice dives so that they would be prepared to intervene if necessary, and giving Qinu ultrasound exams. Over the past month they’ve manned an observation post 24 hours a day to keep tabs on the mother.

Calls to the aquarium were not returned Wednesday.

The calf was sired by Aurek, a 14-year-old male who arrived at the Georgia Aquarium in February 2016 from SeaWorld Orlando. The Georgia Aquarium welcomed two other whales that same month, 6-year-old male Nunavik and 10-year-old female Maple.

Belugas are often moved from one facility to another to facilitate breeding and study, according to Bill Van Bonn, vice president for animal health at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.

After Georgia staff determined that Qinu was pregnant, they moved Aurek to the Shedd Aquarium to make room for the birth, said Van Bonn. The Shedd also houses Beethoven, a 25-year-old male beluga that sired Maris’ offspring.

The Chicago veterinarian said the survival rate for newborn belugas is around 50 percent, though it varies widely from place to place and population to population.

“What we do know about these animals’ birth process and physiology is what we’ve learned by taking care of them over these years,” said Van Bonn. “We do know that first-time moms tend to have more difficulty than moms who have been successful in the past.”

The Georgia Aquarium opened in November 2005 on the strength of a $250 million gift from Bernie Marcus, co-founder of The Home Depot.

Since that time the attraction has powered a renaissance of downtown tourism, luring other attractions to locate nearby. The aquarium had 2.4 million visitors last year.

In addition to studying belugas in captivity, the aquarium has sent teams to do field research on beluga populations in Bristol Bay, Alaska, trying to determine the reasons for population losses in the wild.

The beluga exhibit at the Georgia Aquarium will remain closed for an indeterminate time.