Hopes of saving a malnourished beluga whale that swam up the River Seine waned on Sunday, as rescuers said they were in a race against time to find a solution.
The whale was first spotted on Tuesday in the river that runs through Paris to the Channel. Since Friday, it has been located about 70 kilometers north of the French capital between two locks.
But standing in the warm stagnant water between the lock gates is no longer an option. “He needs to be moved in the next 24-48 hours, these conditions are not good for him,” Lamya Essemlali, head of Sea Shepherd France, told AFP.
Specialists had “little hope” for the visibly underweight whale as they were “in a race against time” to save the creature, Essemlali said. “We all doubt his own ability to return to the sea,” she said. “Even if we were to ‘drive’ it with a boat, that would be extremely dangerous, if not impossible.”
Before swimming between the two locks, “he tended to head towards Paris. It would be catastrophic if he got there,” Essemlali said. “For now, however, the euthanasia option has been ruled out as it would be premature at this stage,” she said.
The whale still has “energy…turns its head, responds to stimuli,” she said after a meeting of experts and French officials. Although rescuers tried to feed the frozen herring and then live trout, the animal refused the food. “His lack of appetite is definitely a symptom of something else… an illness. He is malnourished and that has been weeks if not months. He stopped eating at sea,” Essemlali said.
On Saturday, vets had “administered vitamins and products to stimulate appetite,” said a statement from the Normandy department of Eure, which oversees the rescue operation.
The small spots reported on his pale skin Saturday were due to the fresh water, it said. Another option being considered is to take it out of the water, give it vitamins, investigate the cause of the disease and finally send it out to sea once it regains strength.
Another is “letting it end its life peacefully, like someone who is very ill and who doesn’t have much chance to live,” said Isabelle Dorliat-Pouzet, a senior police officer in Evreux.
Belugas are normally only found in cold Arctic waters, and although they migrate south in the fall to feed as ice, they rarely venture that far. An adult can grow up to four meters (13 feet) in length. According to the French Pelagis Observatory, which specializes in marine mammals, the closest beluga population is outside the Svalbard Archipelago, north of Norway, 3,000 kilometers (1,800 miles) from the Seine.
It is only the second recorded sighting of a beluga in a French river since 1948, when a fisherman in the mouth of the Loire River found one in his nets. The sighting comes just a few months after an orca — also known as a killer whale, but technically part of the dolphin family — ran aground in the Seine and was later found dead between Le Havre and Rouen in late May.
An autopsy found that the animal, which was more than four meters long, was likely exhausted from being unable to eat. Officials said they also discovered a bullet lodged in the base of his skull, although it was far from clear that the wound played a role in the death.