Baby beluga whale nursed back to health thanks to quick-acting response team

CHICAGO -- When a call comes in, the Shedd Aquarium's Animal Response Team is ready at a moment's notice to travel anywhere in the world and help marine animals in need.

So when the Shedd's Steve Aibel heard a small beluga whale washed up on an Alaskan shore three weeks ago, he and some of the top marine mammal experts in the country were on the scene hours later.

The Cook Inlet, where the baby beluga was spotted, is home to one of the most critically endangered pods of beluga whales in the world. There are less than 328 whales, so saving even one is considered crucial for their survival.

"It's very uncommon to find a baby whale all by itself on the beach... not something we see every day," Aibel said.

Baby belugas rarely leave their mother's side for the first two years of life. When they didn't see any other belugas around, Aibel said they knew they had to do something to help. They brought the four-week-old calf back to the Alaska SeaLife Center and went to work.

"We spend a lot of time with a blender, lot of time with milk matrix formula, herring, and making loads of formula because this is a large animal and we gotta feed him 24 hours a day," Aibel said.

The baby weighed about 150 pounds, a lightweight compared to the full-grown belugas at the Shedd, which weigh tons and go through buckets of fish and squid every few hours. Aibel said Shedd scientists have learned how to raise babies, raise moms, and deal with young and older whales.

"We've worked and acquired all this knowledge and what do we want to to? We want to give it back . We want an animal to benefit from it, and what other animal is in a more prime position to benefit from it than a baby whale that needs our help?" Aibel said.

Aibel spent two weeks in Alaska nursing the baby calf back to health. He has since swapped with another first responder from the Shedd Aquarium, and things look good for the baby whale, who has been putting on just over a pound a day.

"We're not mama but we are the next best thing - and proud to be there," Aibel said.