Scientists lose contact with rescued beluga

CACOUNA, Que. — Scientists are looking for signs of a young whale that was flown from a New Brunswick river to the waters off Quebec after losing contact with the whale a few days ago.

The beluga, which is about two metres long, was captured in the Nepisiquit River last month — where it was alone — and transported to Quebec where it was released near Cacouna in the St. Lawrence Estuary.

The Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals said it hasn’t received satellite transmissions from the whale, which was outfitted with a tracking device so scientists could monitor its movements, since last Tuesday.

“Hoping for a temporary problem, we waited two more days before having to accept the reality,” the Quebec City-based group said in a statement Friday. “We lost contact with the beluga,”

Scientists are reserving conclusions about what happened to the beluga, but the animal’s death is among the explanations being considered, the group said. The group said officials are holding out hope that the beluga is still alive and its tracking device has been lost or broken.

“Nothing is being played yet,” Robert Michaud, scientific director of the group, said. “If the animal is still alive but its beacon has fallen, it will have left a scar under its dorsal crest which should allow us to recognize it easily.”

“We will keep our eyes wide open,” he said.

Officials said the whale’s prognosis was “reserved” at the time of its release on June 15, but the young beluga had surpassed expectations by swimming more than 570 kilometres into the estuary, where researchers hoped it would make contact with other members of its species.

“The story of the beluga does not stop with the end of the tag,” the group said. ”Many developments can still occur, and the rescue operation has already tested hypotheses and advanced science.”

The population of belugas in the St. Lawrence has been declining since the early 2000s and it’s believed there are fewer than 900 of them still in existence.

They were placed on the endangered species list last fall.

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