MYSTIC — A confirmed sighting of a beluga whale in the Taunton River in Massachusetts has kept scientists from the Mystic Aquarium busy tracking and studying the visitor from the north.
Beluga whales make their home in the Arctic and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, thus the finding is rare. It also, however, might be a sign of the times; a beluga has been spotted in the same river at Battleship Cove in Fall River, two other times in the last decade, and a fisherman in Narragansett Bay filmed a beluga on June 15.
The aquarium is also investigating a U.S. Coast Guard sighting of a pod of orcas, or killer whales, 150 miles off Nantucket, Mass. Like the beluga, the orca inhabits the Arctic.
Throughout June, or at least as early as June 16, social media sites had received photographs from boaters claiming the Beluga was in the river. The National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration asked the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the aquarium to check out the beluga sightings reported by boaters on the Taunton River last month. Both organizations are part of NOAA’s stranding and entanglement team.
On June 18, the sightings were confirmed. “The International Fund for Animal Welfare conducted an aerial survey and sighted and verified the whale,” said Tracy Romano, executive vice president of research and zoological operations at Mystic Aquarium.
Romano said the last unconfirmed sighting was June 28. The aquarium dispatched teams of scientists to search for the whale during the last week of June but were unsuccessful.
The Mystic Aquarium is the only one in the Northeast that has beluga whales on site for study and exhibition. Mystic scientists spend six weeks every summer at Cunningham Inlet in Nunavut, Canada, and in Point Lay and Bristol Bay, Alaska, studying the area’s ecology and the animal’s behavior. “It is difficult to say why this beluga was so far south,” Romano said. “It has happened before but it is a rare experience. If it is young it could be lost. It is also unusual because they are such social animals yet this one appears to be by itself.”
According to Romano, the changing environment is a concern affecting endangered beluga populations worldwide. “We are seeing so many different conditions because of climate change. Ecosystems are changing and their food could be moving,” she said.
“The presence of the orcas off Nantucket is a concern. That is virtually unheard of, to be that far south at this time of year,” Romano said.
These occurrences could be caused by a variety of circumstances, including water chemistry, temperature and the presence of prey or lack thereof. The presence of species that normally do not live in New England waters is not new. In past years there have been documented cases of manatees, typically found in areas like Florida, in Point Judith Pond, an indication of warmer seas in late summer.
Mystic Aquarium scientists will continue to monitor the river for additional sightings, said Romano.
The Rhode Island fisherman, Dale Denelle of South Kingstown, posted a video of his encounter with the beluga, which swam under his boat and then surfaced, on the Vimeo website.