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  October 22, 2001

Whale of a Tale: Scientist Returns
Stranded Beluga to Ocean

H ow would you go about catching an errant Beluga whale?

Sylvain DeGuise could tell you. In fact, he could show you.

DeGuise, a veterinarian with the pathobiology department who has studied the endangered mammals for years, has developed several techniques for obtaining blood and tissue samples needed for his research. He figures he has captured some 60 whales in his career. And that experience proved useful for a challenging rescue he was recently called upon to make in Canada.

In June, three Beluga whales that usually roam the Gulf of St. Lawrence, made their way to the eastern tip of Canada and swam seven miles up the St. Paul River - a rocky river with several shallow sandbars.

Typically, when the animals stray away from their normal hunting grounds, they are chasing a food source. But they don't stay for long and they don't travel far inland. Yet, this time they stayed for three months, and the water levels began to drop.

In late August, after one whale died, environmentalists realized that the health of the other two was at risk and an emergency call was made to DeGuise. A second whale died the next day, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare arranged to fly in DeGuise to rescue the third animal.

As soon as DeGuise arrived in Blanc Sablon, the staging area, he began planning strategy with Canada's Department of Fisheries and Ocean.

They went to the section of the river where the Beluga was last seen, to conduct a visual analysis of the whale and his surroundings. Working in their favor was the size of the juvenile whale - about eight feet, rather than the16 feet reached at maturity

"We considered all possible actions, from using underwater sounds to drive the animal down-river, to transporting him by airplane to a facility where he could be rehabilitated," says DeGuise. "But he was healthy and in good shape from what I could see, so we decided to capture him and transport him back to the Gulf ourselves."

The mission soon got underway, with the assistance of local fishermen who volunteered to help navigate the river. DeGuise attempted his favored method of capture by diving off a moving boat and landing in front of the whale so he could throw a hoop net over its head. The metal hoop was covered in foam and was connected to a big bag of netting. The technique has worked dozens of times in the past, but this time, DeGuise jumped short. He ended up on the whale's back and was unable to get the hoop around the animal's head.

So he resorted to another strategy. Using two boats and a 250 foot-long net, the group partially circled the whale and coaxed him toward the shore, where the hoop net was put over his head and a rope was tied to his tail. By controlling its tail and head, DeGuise explains, you have pretty good control of the whole whale.

The group put the Beluga onto a stretcher and onto a Zodiac (an inflatable rubber boat) for transport back to the Gulf. If that doesn't sound like challenge enough, add in a storm with three foot waves. The Zodiac, with DeGuise and the Beluga, nearly capsized a couple of times.

"I rode with him and kept him wet, while monitoring his breathing and making sure the blow hole was kept clear of water. He actually stayed very calm through it all," DeGuise says.

Once they got to the mouth of the river, they stopped at a small beach, put the whale into water and pulled him into an area four or five feet deep, before releasing him from the net.

DeGuise describes their parting of the ways: "He started swimming around and checking out the environment immediately. I could tell he was using his sonar. Then after I gave him a gentle tap on the back, he took off swimming. We were all thrilled!"

Janice Palmer

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