The only Cook Inlet beluga whale in captivity is celebrating five years at his aquarium home. Named Tyonek — after the closest community to where he was rescued — the whale first lived at the Alaska Sealife Center in Seward before transferring to his permanent home at SeaWorld San Antonio.
In 2017, the pilot of an Alaska State Trooper helicopter spotted the stranded beluga calf from the air on a mudflat near Trading Bay on the west side of Cook Inlet.
“He saw what he thought was a dead baby beluga,” said Barbara Mahoney, a biologist with NOAA Fisheries who worked on the rescue. “He knew we would be very interested in a dead animal, because that’s what it looked like from the air.”
She said the pilot landed, realized the calf was alive but abandoned, and contacted NOAA Fisheries.
The team quickly determined Tyonek would need to remain in captivity — he was too weak and young to survive on his own. He was brought first to Anchorage, then to the SeaLife Center.
“Even with his health challenges, they rallied, he rallied, and after a couple months we realized he was over the hump,” Mahoney said. “But NOAA did an evaluation and realized that this animal couldn’t be rehabilitated and released back to the wild.”
Cook Inlet beluga whales are genetically distinct, and highly endangered. There are roughly 270 that inhabit the waterway today. Tyonek was the first rehabilitated Cook Inlet beluga calf, and remains the only Cook Inlet beluga in captivity. Beyond caring for the animal, researchers also appreciated the opportunity to study a member of the species.
In an episode of Indie Alaska made in those first few months when Tyonek lived at the SeaLife Center, Dr. Carrie Goertz explained that the center was able to conduct the first ever hearing tests on a Cook Inlet beluga.
“One of the concerns of what might be a pressure to the Cook Inlet beluga whales is their ability to hear in what’s a very noisy environment,” she said in the episode.
After four months in Seward, NOAA selected SeaWorld San Antonio as Tyonek’s permanent home, because the facility had adult female belugas and young male calves, which would be important for his development. In San Antonio, Tyonek bonded with a Pacific white-sided dolphin named Betty, and they remained companions until her death last year.
Mahoney said Tyonek’s five-year anniversary is significant, as were all of his previous milestones.
“I think they’ve done a wonderful job with keeping this animal healthy, physically, socially,” she said. “I think it is to be celebrated.”
Mahoney said the public can play a critical role in finding stranded beluga’s like Tyonek. She said if you see a stranded, entangled, injured, or dead marine mammal, call the NOAA Fisheries Alaska Statewide 24-hour Stranding Hotline at (877) 925-7773.