Beluga washes up on north shore

Dr. Megan Jones with the AVC helped conduct a necropsy on a beluga whale that recently washed up along the North shore. Alexa McClure photo.

By Alexa McClure

Apr. 12, 2021

Dr. Megan Jones and her team were driving along the beach looking for a beluga that had washed up the day before.

They spotted it. It wasn’t moving as they approached.

“OK, it’s died,” thought Jones.

But as they got closer, Jones saw the head move a little, and its blowhole open and close.

“Oh no, it’s still alive,” she said.

The beluga washed up on a Cavendish Beach sandspit on April 5. It was reported to the Marine Animal Response Society by someone walking along the beach.

Cavendish Beach National Park. The beluga washed up on a sandspit about four km to the left of the beach entrance.

The next morning, a team from the Atlantic Veterinary College and Parks Canada went to find the beluga. They expected it wouldn’t have survived the night because of the severe injuries reported the day before.

The beluga had wounds across its body from eagles and seagulls feeding on it, said Jones, the Atlantic regional director for the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative and an assistant professor at the college.

“It was quite a jarring sight to see a whale on the sand, not even anywhere near the water.”

Because of the changing tide, the beluga had sunk into the sand, said Parks Canada in an email.

The beluga was a two year old male. It weighed 293 kilograms and was two and a half metres long, said Jones.

The team from the college, Parks Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans came to a unanimous decision to euthanize it humanely, said Parks Canada.

This is done by giving it medication to make it drowsy, then injecting it with a larger dose of the same drug used to euthanize dogs and cats, said Jones.

They didn’t know how long the beluga had been on the beach before being reported.

She was relieved to be able to euthanize it, Jones said.

“It was one of the only times you’d ever be sad that an endangered species was still alive because you don’t want it to be suffering.”

There is one population of belugas in the St. Lawrence River.

Since1885, the population has dropped from 10,000 to 1,000 by 1980.

That number has been slowly declining since with about 900 belugas in 2012, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Many end up with cancer due to water pollution in the St. Lawrence Seaway, said Jones.

Jones performs necropsies – autopsies – on whales that wash up on P.E.I.

The Cavendish beluga was brought back to the college where the work took about three hours. Measurements and samples from the beluga were collected, and the remaining tissue was burned as part of biosafety policies at UPEI, said Jones.

The beluga appeared to be healthy, apart from the injuries it suffered after washing up, but the college is still awaiting a few test results, she said.

“Final results on the cause of injury and stranding of the whale are pending,” said Parks Canada in an email.

Jones has performed a couple of dozen necropsies on whales during her three years at the college, but this was the first on a beluga, she said.

Belugas usually live in the Arctic or polar region, apart from the one population in the St. Lawrence. Sometimes they can get off track and travel into the Gulf and end up near P.E.I.

When the water is rough and it’s high tide, belugas can get confused and stranded, Jones said.

“They aren’t used to the sandy beaches, the terrain is a little different than what they’re thinking.”

There is usually only about one beluga sighting on P.E.I. every one or two years. There have only been a handful that have washed up on the island in the past 20 years, said Jones.

“It’s very, very unusual.”