“It’s a girl!”
Whisper, a 20-year-old beluga whale, gave birth to a healthy baby on May 17 after a 15-month pregnancy, marking the first arrival of the Georgia Aquarium’s newest cetacean as the facility remains closed amid the global pandemic.
The yet-to-be-named calf clocked in at a whopping 79 kilograms (174 pounds) at birth and measured 5 feet 4 inches long. Mom and baby are reportedly doing “really well.”
“We are so proud of Whisper and overjoyed to welcome her calf to our Georgia Aquarium family,” said Dennis Christen, senior director of zoological operations, mammals, and birds at Georgia Aquarium, in a press release. “We will be there right alongside the calf as it continues to grow and learn from Whisper.”
News of Whisper’s pregnancy was announced in January and the final behind-the-scenes moments of the new mother’s journey were aired in a special episode of Animal Planet’s The Aquarium. In the months following worldwide shutdowns and distancing measures, the aquarium adjusted its birth plans to protect staff while ensuring Whisper’s delivery was safe. Different teams were tasked with various response roles like gearing up with scuba equipment should the calf need assistance surfacing for its first breath.
In the midst of her labor, Whisper had stopped swimming, prompting a team of caregivers to administer oxytocin to help stimulate contractions. Shortly after, the calf’s fluke can be seen moving, mimicking its mother’s up-and-down flaps. After several more pushes, the baby can be seen emerging and taking its first breaths at the surface, swimming and nuzzling with its mother in what caregivers describe as an “overwhelming” moment.
Beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) are usually found in Arctic waters around the world and are considered by the IUCN as a species of “least concern”. The birth marks a “rare event” as just one beluga calf has been born in the last three years in an aquarium, according to Georgia Aquarium staff.
“This birth is important not only for Georgia Aquarium but all accredited zoological facilities. Our hope is to sustain the beluga whale population in North America so future generations can learn about them,” said Eric Gaglione, vice president of zoological operations at Georgia Aquarium. “Throughout Whisper’s pregnancy, we tracked important data about beluga whale gestation that could hopefully make informed conservation decisions about belugas in the wild and their offspring.”
After the long labor, the mom-baby duo is reportedly getting well-deserved rest and time to bond. The aquarium team says they are monitoring the two around the clock for the next several crucial weeks
“Our animal health team is continuing to monitor Whisper and her calf. The coming weeks are important for the calf’s development and there are milestones to meet so we’re giving mom and calf all the support and time they need,” said Dr Tonya Clauss, vice president of animal and environmental health at Georgia Aquarium.
There are currently no federal laws against keeping whales in captivity in the US, although it has been banned in South Carolina since the 1980s and in Maui since 2002. In 2019, Canada passed what is known as the "Free Willy" bill to end the holding of whales and dolphins in captivity, joining many countries around the world that have banned the practice, including India, the UK, Costa Rica, Bolivia, Chile, Nicaragua, Brazil, Luxembourg, Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, and Slovenia.