Q&A: Beluga whale death addressed by aquarium chief vet

The aquarium had moved Nico, a male, and female belugas Maris and Natasha to Sea World San Antonio on Oct. 5, and his death on Oct. 31 was sudden and unexpected. At the time of the move, the aquarium said the three whales were transferred in a "preventative" measure due to construction at the downtown attraction. The media, the AJC included, reported that precaution was related to the noise resulting from work on the aquarium's dolphin-related expansion adjoining the whales' home in the Cold Water Quest gallery.

But in a Thursday interview, chief veterinary officer Dr. Gregory Bossart revealed that the whales, which had been closely monitored for signs of noise stress and had shown no ill effects, were instead moved because the aquarium decided to renovate Cold Water while dolphin construction was ongoing.

Bossart joined the aquarium staff in January, but as a consultant had treated Nico starting in the late 1990s at the Mexico City attraction where he and fellow beluga Gasper had lived in a tank under a giant wooden roller coaster, both suffering from poor health as a result. The Georgia Aquarium rescued the duo not long before its 2005 opening. Gasper was one of the belugas who died there in 2007, of bone disease.

Q: The cause of Nico's death was inconclusive after the gross necropsy conducted in Texas. As you await results from the microscopic part of that animal autopsy, what's your gut feeling about why he died?

A: We can’t even speculate until we get [the report]. Nico had a chronic health history in Mexico City of gastrointestinal illness, liver issues, lung issues. So I suspect one or all of those things crept back into his life again. But we won’t know until we get the [results, expected in two to five weeks].

Q: Is transport of animals the size of a beluga in and of itself stressful for them?

A: It can be. What we do is minimize the stress. First of all, they go through a very rigid medical clearance, and the results are reviewed by our staff as well as the Sea World staff. All of the animals were cleared.

And then what we do is minimize any transport issues. The animals are put in large boxes that contain water. They’re put on our own charter jet to Texas. [They were trucked with a police escort from the Texas airport to SeaWorld.] The whole transport took about 12 hours, so it was very short. And they got there and they swam normally and ate normally.

Q: Did aquarium staff accompany them?

A: We had 13 staff members go with them to Sea World. There were two staff members assigned to each animal, to monitor respiration during transport, to monitor body temperature, to monitor any abnormal behavior, which is recorded. So it’s really a science. We had a trainer come here from Sea World, who spent about 10 days getting to know the animals. And our biologists stayed in Texas for a week to 10 days after, to make sure the acclimation was fine, and it was.

Q: The aquarium at one point had five belugas, and three of them have died. Some who object to large marine animals in captivity would argue that's strong evidence supporting that point of view.

A: I think you have to look at the situation, a unique situation. Nico and Gasper were rescue cases, and they had that risk. The third beluga whale, Marina, we just found out [through consultation with neuropathologists] that she had a probable genetic disease in her brain that she probably had her whole life. There wasn’t anything we did or could have done for that whale. To me that takes the three animals off the list.

The people who are against captivity have every right to their opinions, but the problem is a lot of their facts are misinformation, and the misinformation is brought in to confuse and influence behavior. And that makes good media. But people need to know that our standard of care is leaps and bounds above where it was 20 years ago.

Q: So, if you could go in a wayback machine and make the decision to transport again, would you?

A: Absolutely.

I just want to remind you that Nico had a really interesting medical history. ... He was in a substandard facility that was really unhealthy for him in Mexico City. He developed all sorts of medical problems, which were very difficult to control.

He was literally rescued by the aquarium and brought here. ... There’s an inherent risk in [taking on sick animals], but we’re trying to help the animals. I feel we did enrich both Nico and Gasper's lives and in the process generated a tremendous amount of science on these animals, and we educated 10 million [aquarium visitors].

It’s one of those risks that’s difficult but I think in the long run benefited the animals. Because without that, they wouldn’t have survived.

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