On June 5, a 3-week-old female beluga at Georgia Aquarium died. Just over a month later, another 3-week-old female beluga—born prematurely—died at SeaWorld San Antonio. The Georgia Aquarium birth had been hailed as a milestone, “the first viable calf to be born from parents who were born in human care.”
The two deaths, though noteworthy because of proximity in time and similarity of age, are hardly rare. Overall, the beluga breeding program among captive facilities in North America has been unsuccessful, with most calves who survive birth dying young. Those calves who do reach adulthood usually die before 30 despite being “shielded” from predation or any of the other challenges they face in the open ocean. In the wild, average lifespan in belugas is unknown, but maximum lifespans are 60-70 years. No captive beluga has come close to this age.
Following the second incident, AWI’s marine mammal scientist, Dr. Naomi Rose, told the online news service The Dodo that “‘Whenever a captive-born cetacean calf dies, I suspect the effects of captivity—especially [on] maternal competence—are a factor.’” She noted further that the companies “‘refuse to conduct the necessary, objective science to truly understand mortality risk for captive-born calves.’”