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Baby whale: things are going swimmingly

The newborn beluga whale at the Georgia Aquarium still has many milestones to pass, but veterinarians are optimistic about her health, as she works at mastering two critical skills: keeping pace with her mother in the water and nursing.

Born in the early hours of Sunday, May 10, the 126-pound whale calf immediately swam to the surface to take her first breath.

The crew of veterinarians, animal trainers and volunteers waiting at the surface were instructed to keep calm, but they couldn’t help but give an involuntary whoop of delight. “Some people went airborne,” said Eric Gaglione, director of zoological operations.

You can see video of the birth here.

That first breath is not a given. Greg Bossart, senior vice president and chief veterinary officer at the aquarium, points out that belugas are born underwater, but breathe air, and if they don’t move to the surface quickly enough, they can drown.

“It’s a daunting challenge,” he said.

The little white whale will be given a name after a naming contest later this year.

Maris, the 20-year-old mother, delivered a baby in 2012, but that infant was born with serious defects and was unable to swim. Though divers rescued her, she died several days later.

The aquarium has a crew of divers who have been training with Maris during the past year to ensure that she was comfortable and familiar with their presence.

On Saturday, when her delivery became imminent, three divers at a time began keeping a vigil at the bottom of the pool, rotating out every 20 minutes because of the bone-chilling 61-degree water.

It turns out their surveillance was unnecessary, but the aquarium was taking no chances.

Gaglione, who cares for the aquarium’s birds and mammals, said about 102 staffers and volunteers were on hand Saturday night and Sunday morning, including 17 divers, crews in the observation booth and at the underwater windows, and those at the surface.

Gaglione was encouraged by the calf’s instincts. “She was attempting to nurse only four hours after she was born, which is a strong sign,” he said. The baby beluga has been receiving supplementary bottles from aquarium personnel, including breast milk from Maris herself, expressed by a whale-sized breast pump. The baby drinks about 16 ounces every three or four hours, and has maintained her weight.

Gaglione said the next challenge is for the calf to learn “slipstreaming,” or swimming inside the wake created by her mother’s passage.

That drafting technique allows infant whales to expend less energy and still keep pace.

“We’re seeing her figure that out,” Gaglione said.

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About the Author

Bo Emerson is an Atlanta native and a long-time AJC feature and news writer.