Drone footage has spotted a lone beluga whale swimming in the waters just off the coast of San Diego. The sighting marks the first time a beluga has ever been recorded this far south and scientists are perplexed as to where it’s come from given the nearest population is thousands of miles away. Exactly why the solo whale ended up so far from home isn’t known but specialists believe it could either be due to poor health and disorientation, or even just an insatiable thirst for exploration.
Belugas have been known to pop up in unexpected places, with one individual nicknamed Benny making himself quite comfortable in the River Thames, London, back in 2018. These social animals are usually found in the Arctic Ocean and its adjoining seas, existing in pods that can be large and quite inclusive, with one group welcoming a lost narwhal into the fold. Experts however were somewhat stunned when a beluga whale was found casually swimming off the coast of San Diego, California on June 26, a modest 4,023 kilometers (2,500 miles) from the nearest known beluga population in Alaska, and completely alone.
This is the farthest south the species has ever been officially recorded, which led researchers to be skeptical when reports came over the radio of a “pearly white, 15-foot animal that didn’t have a dorsal fin”, according to a report from National Geographic. Certain that nobody would believe them if they didn’t secure concrete evidence, Domenic Biagini, a whale-watching tour captain and wildlife photographer from San Diego’s Mission Bay, switched to “citizen scientist” mode and went out on the water armed with a drone.
““Undeniably, unmistakably, a beluga whale popped up in front of me,” he said. "It was so bizarre, that moment was so astonishing."
The astonishing footage clearly shows the conspicuous, ghostly outline of the beluga’s white body drifting through the California waters. However, while it solved the mystery of the unidentified whale it cracked open a much wider one as experts struggled to work out what on Earth it was doing there. Cetaceans are known explorers but making a solo venture 2,500 miles from their native range is not considered a normal degree of curiosity.
Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a research associate at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, told National Geographic that while it’s possible the beluga decided to go on one of the world’s largest "road" trips, it’s also possible that the animal is unwell or disorientated. Increasing ocean traffic has made marine environments much louder, which can cause confusion for animals that rely on complex echolocation such as belugas, who use the large melon on their head to assess their environment and communicate.
Reports of the animal’s condition however indicate that our lone ranger is doing alright, with no obvious physical or behavioral signs yet detected that might indicate the animal is unwell. “I'd like to think that it's on a grand adventure,” said Schulman-Janiger, and fingers crossed she’s right. An ambitious beluga taking on the open ocean is the kind of feel-good, inspirational tale 2020 so desperately needs right now.
[H/T: National Geographic]