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Environment

DNA left behind by solo beluga whale helps unravel mystery of its origins, but questions remain

Beluga in Puget Sound waters
SR3 Sealife Response, Rehab and Research
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A lone beluga swims in Puget Sound in early October.

Federal scientists have a few more clues about the lone beluga whale that was seen at various points around Puget Sound and the Salish Sea last month.

For starters, they think the bright white whale is probably not part of an endangered population.

The flash of white seen by whale enthusiasts — and heard on underwater mics called hydrophones — surprised pretty much everyone who heard about it. These whales are native to the icy waters of Alaska and the Arctic. They don’t normally travel alone. That’s why, when veterinarians were assessing its health visually, geneticist Kim Parsons, Ph.D., with NOAA Fisheries in Seattle got a sample of the water near the whale.

“In the same way that you think of, like, the 'CSI' shows where they're swabbing things and looking for trace evidence, we're basically looking for trace evidence of the animals in the environment,” Parsons said.

The beluga left bits of skin cells and mucus in the not-quite three liters of water her team gathered. They vacuum-pumped it onto a filtered disc, then used probes and markers to get a profile of the whale. It didn’t match any of the endangered belugas she knows from studying them in Alaska.

Analysis of DNA in a water sample taken near it appears to match a large population of beluga whales in the Beaufort Sea or the High Arctic Ocean, Parsons said.

It does not resemble DNA of endangered belugas in Cook Inlet, Alaska.

“Which seems counter to what we expected,” Parsons said. “Because I would have expected that it probably roamed down here from one of the nearest beluga populations, which would be either Yakutat or Cook Inlet.”

As a result, there are no plans for federal scientists to intervene — at least not for now.

I think if it had been an individual from the Cook Inlet population, then that may have been revisited. But at the moment, we're kind of in a watch and wait situation,” she said.

A similar case took San Diego by surprise a year ago, when another beluga showed up there alone and eventually disappeared. The mystery of that whale’s journey remains unsolved. Biologists say whales such as these could just be strays, exploring beyond their normal range. Or it’s possible a natural toxin such as domoic acid from an algae bloom has caused neurological damage and made them lose orientation, as it does in sea lions.

Belugas are known for their amazing range of vocalizations and are sometimes called the canaries of the sea. They have an almost cartoon-like appearance, with widely spaced eyes, large melon-shaped heads (used for echolocation) and mouths that often (to humans) look like they’re smiling.

They also have the ability to dive very deep, holding their breath for more than 12 minutes at a time as they search for food — and perhaps even more now, due to changing sea ice conditions brought on by climate change.

Whales are covered by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, requiring wildlife management and restricting activities that could harm them.

Vets who did visual checks on the whale under a permit from NOAA Fisheries said it was likely an adult or sub-adult, based on the brightness of its color. They said it did not look malnourished, although it was not as chubby as most healthy belugas.

Parsons says the DNA she was able to examine in the water sample is not as revealing as actual tissue or blood samples that could give a much clearer picture of where this whale came from. She is still working on possibly discovering its biological sex from the sample, but that remains an unsolved puzzle at this point.

The nonprofit Orca Network says the last confirmed sighting of the white whale was Oct. 14. It was headed out of Admiralty Inlet in the San Juan Islands and might have been following a group of southern resident orcas.

Corrected: November 1, 2021 at 5:59 PM PDT
Spelling of Yakutat was fixed.
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