Posted by: The ocean update | May 27, 2015

Connecticut maritime researchers urge Sound boaters to use safety around beluga whales (USA)

Cheryl E Miller

Cheryl E Miller

Thursday, May 27th, 2015 (FRANCIS CARR Jr.) NORWALK — A pod of three beluga whales entered the Long Island Sound last week, according to researches at Mystic Aquarium. Extremely rare for the Sound, the whales have been spotted repeatedly over the past week, most recently directly south of Stamford in Oyster Bay, Long Island Monday morning.

The first sighting was on May 10 in Narragansett Bay, according to Allison Tuttle, Senior Director of Veterinary Services at Mystic Aquarium.

“Our research and animal rescue teams have been observing these animals since [the first reported sighting],” Tuttle said.

Tuttle said the whales belong to an endangered Canadian pod of belugas native to the St. Lawrence Estuary, and appear to be juveniles.

“One of [the whales] was photo documented in [the St. Lawrence] population in 2013, and we know that animal is the same animal because of a distinctive notch on the dorsal ridge,” Tuttle told The Hour. The whales are presumed to be juvenile because of their relatively small size — about 8 feet in length — and their light gray, rather than plain white, coloration.

The belugas seem to be faring well, despite being out of their element, Tuttle added ; water temperatures are relatively cool, and the whales have been eating regularly.

“This is not their habitat, and we would prefer them, for their wellbeing, to make their way back home,” Tuttle said. “But they do appear to be feeding.”

“Really, the biggest challenge for them right now is the fact that there are a lot of boats and people out in the Sound,” she added. “We are finding … that the animals are getting more and more habituated to people. They are approaching boats; they’re also not fleeing quite as much when boats approach them. This is very dangerous for them, as you can imagine.”

Humans pose the biggest threat to adventurous whales who visit the Sound. Motor boats collide with them, slashing them with their outboard propellors. In fact, the last beluga seen in the Long Island Sound was murdered by an unknown assailant in 1986. Nicknamed “B.W.” by locals, the affectionate whale trolled Sound waters for a year, interacting with boaters and playing with swimmers; she was discovered floating belly-up in New Haven Harbor, dead of multiple gunshots from a .22-caliber rifle.

If boaters spot the whales, they should cut their boat engines immediately, and remain 150 feet away from the animals, per the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, Tuttle said.

“The first thing is to cut your engine,” said Dave Sigworth of the Norwalk Maritime Aquarium. “They’re mammals, they come up to breathe, so you wouldn’t want to catch them with your prop.”

In general, marine mammal sightings are rare for the Long Island Sound, Sigworth said, in part due to its geographical characteristics.

The Sound only has two points of ingress for mammalian visitors from the Atlantic: to the east, near Mystic, and an extremely narrow bottleneck to the southwest where the Sound meets the East River under the Throgs Neck Bridge.

“It’s hard to get in here, because there’s only two channels to get in,” Sigworth told The Hour. “If you’re a marine mammal … you’d have to take a really specific turn” to find the southwestern access point.

Nevertheless, marine mammals do occasionally wander into the Long Island Sound from the ocean, according to Sigworth.

“A lot of people don’t think of the Sound as an arm of the Atlantic Ocean,” Sigworth said. “A couple years ago there was a pretty decent-sized pod of dolphins out there … Every five or six years there’s a manatee that blunders this way.”

Researchers aren’t sure what has occasioned the whales to enter coastal waters so far south of their habitual Arctic territory; there may be some connection to the “good number” of menhaden fish, or bunker, that have been found in the Sound this year, Sigworth said.

“It could be that they’re finding food,” Sigworth speculated.

John Lenzycki, curator of animals at the Maritime Aquarium, thought maybe the St. Lawrence pod’s food supply was depleted by the unusually cold winter.

“Steve Bailey at the New England Aquarium questioned whether anyone knew how the St. Lawrence fish stocks fared during this particularly brutal winter we had,” Lenzycki said. “If stocks are low they may have ventured further south in search of more food.”

“Rhode Island saw a rather decent run of squid this spring, and we have seen large schools of menhaden earlier than normal here in the western end of the Sound,” Lenzycki added. “But who knows ?”

Tuttle said that it’s far too early to determine why the whales have come south.

“We have no idea why they’re here,” Tuttle said. “We’re not seeing a lot of the population down here, so i would say that the [idea] that they’re only here because of food or whatever does not make a lot of sense.”

Tuttle said that Mystic Aquarium has been working closely with the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which provides oversight of stranded and out-of-habitat animals; as yet, there are no plans to try to direct the whales homeward or to intervene in any other way.

“Right now, because the animals do appear to be in good condition, it doesn ot appear necessary to intervene for them,” Tuttle said.

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