Please select your home edition
Henri-Lloyd - For the Obsessed

SeaWorld San Antonio celebrates Tyonek's 5-year anniversary at the Park

by NOAA Fisheries 10 Mar 2023 14:37 UTC
SeaWorld staffer tending to Tyonek. NOAA Fisheries ESA/MMPA Permit No. 18786-02 © SeaWorld San Antonio

A chance sighting

On September 30, 2017, then-NOAA Enforcement Officer Noah Meisenheimer spotted a 1-month-old beluga while conducting an aerial enforcement patrol with an Alaska State trooper helicopter pilot. Later named for the Indigenous community near which he was found, Tyonek was discovered stranded on a mudflat in Trading Bay, Cook Inlet, Alaska.

They originally thought this baby beluga was dead and landed to collect the calf for a necropsy, or animal autopsy. Officer Meisenheimer discovered the stranded beluga was alive and, without other belugas in the area, the calf was likely abandoned. He received authorization from NOAA Fisheries Alaska Protected Resources Division and the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program to encourage the whale to move into deeper waters.

"He would swim on his own for a little while, but kept turning around to swim back to shore," said Officer Meisenheimer. "I knew something had to be wrong with him. And since we were in constant contact with NOAA Fisheries, we informed them that another course of action was needed to rescue the calf."

Officer Meisenheimer remained with Tyonek as the pilot left to transport Alaska SeaLife Center (ASLC) veterinarian Dr. Carrie Goertz, who was working nearby, to the whale. Dr. Goertz determined that the male beluga calf would not survive on his own, but should be rescued and rehabilitated. Tyonek was safely brought to Anchorage.

The road to recovery

Once in Anchorage, they were met by NOAA Fisheries' assistant stranding coordinator. Tyonek was stabilized, then the ASLC rescue truck arrived to transport Tyonek to Seward for further treatment, stabilization, and rehabilitation. Within a day of rescue, teams from Georgia Aquarium, Mystic Aquarium, SeaWorld, Shedd Aquarium, and Vancouver Aquarium arrived to support Tyonek in his rehabilitation.

Tyonek's recovery was arduous with several ailments, likely the reason for his abandonment, including pneumonia, constipation, sunburn, and fluid on the brain. Upon arrival at ASLC, Tyonek could not swim around the rehabilitation pool and spent his first few days in a sling. This crew worked tirelessly around the clock to assess, feed, and monitor the calf to aid in his survival.

Tyonek was tube-fed at the start of his recovery, but within 72 hours the team successfully bottle fed him and phased out the tube feeding. A month after his rescue, Tyonek's lung collapsed, causing an air pocket that made him too buoyant to dive. Specialists and team partners were very concerned for his survival, but this did not deter their efforts and collaboration to get him healthy. Their determination was rewarded when Tyonek recovered. NOAA Fisheries was able to provide additional support for some of his care through an Emergency Prescott Grant awarded to ASLC.

As Tyonek neared four months old, NOAA Fisheries determined Tyonek was non-releasable. He could not survive in the wild because he was nutritionally and socially dependent at the time of stranding. He lacked both the socialization and survival skills needed to be successful on his own.

NOAA Fisheries followed formal procedures to choose a permanent care facility in the United States for Tyonek. NOAA Fisheries evaluated each facility's application based on their ability to accommodate his medical and social needs, support all necessary transportation and integration logistics, and contribute to scientific research to aid conservation efforts to protect wild belugas. A permanent place at a marine mammal facility with other belugas was the only chance for Tyonek to survive.

NOAA Fisheries selected SeaWorld San Antonio as the facility that would give Tyonek the best chance to thrive. They have adult female belugas and young male calves that would be important companions for Tyonek's social development.

A Texas Transplant

After 159 days of 24-hour care and observation at ASLC, NOAA Fisheries worked with ASLC and SeaWorld San Antonio to coordinate Tyonek's safe and speedy transport to his new home. Under constant veterinary supervision, Tyonek was moved, via truck, from Seward to Anchorage, Alaska, suspended from a stretcher in a partially filled tank. Tyonek was flown on a chartered plane to San Antonio, where he received a special police escort from the airport to SeaWorld.

Because of his digestive issues, it took time for Tyonek to acclimate and adjust to fish feedings. He learned how to dive for prey, vocalize, and play—the SeaWorld San Antonio team found him to be quite playful. His favorite activities include tongue and back rubs, and splashing his human companions. Tyonek voluntarily participates in his own medical care, which includes monitoring, body condition scoring scales, and blood draws by the SeaWorld staff.

Today, Tyonek continues to thrive and has fully integrated with the SeaWorld San Antonio beluga pod. He even helps their young beluga whale Tulok learn crucial behaviors and skills. Tyonek participates in normal social and sociosexual behaviors with the other captive belugas. Tyonek initially befriended Betty, a Pacific white-sided dolphin, who was the first animal he chose to interact with on his own. The pair were often seen together until Betty's death in 2022. Since then, Tyonek continues to forge bonds with the other belugas in the pod

By monitoring Tyonek as he grows from a calf to an adult beluga, scientists learn important information about his behavioral and physical development, including his hearing, social interactions, vocalizations, and overall body condition. This knowledge is used to help protect, rehabilitate, and support captive and wild beluga populations, specifically Cook Inlet beluga whales. Cook Inlet belugas are one of nine endangered species that NOAA Fisheries identified as part of the nationwide Species in the Spotlight initiative to stabilize population declines and focus resources on marine species that are most at risk of extinction in the near future.

Cook inlet beluga population

There are five distinct populations of beluga whales in Alaska. Tyonek is from the Cook Inlet population, which is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Cook Inlet beluga whales are one of NOAA Fisheries' nine Species in the Spotlight, considered to be among the most at risk of extinction in the near future.

The endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale is an important part of the regional ecosystem, but their population rapidly declined in the 1980s to 1990s. In 2000, NOAA Fisheries designated the Cook Inlet beluga population as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and they were listed as endangered in 2008. It is illegal to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or attempt to engage in any such conduct for listed species, including the Cook Inlet belugas.

To further conserve this population, NOAA initiated an event called Belugas Count! in 2017. This celebration brings citizens together on the endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale, fostering awareness, local pride, and stewardship. This annual autumn event is a collaboration among individuals, tribes, federal and state agencies, academics, local, national, and zoological organizations, and industry.

Members of the public are integral in helping NOAA Fisheries and our partners to conserve and study Cook Inlet belugas. Find out how you can help.

If you see a stranded, entangled, injured, or dead marine mammal, call the NOAA Fisheries Alaska Statewide 24-hour Stranding Hotline: (877) 925-7773, and await further direction. To report violations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act or Endangered Species Act, call NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement at (800) 853-1964.

Related Articles

Gray Whale population abundance
Eastern North Pacific Gray Whale population increases after observed decline To understand how the eastern North Paci?c gray whale population is responding to changes in the environment following its recovery from low numbers due to commercial whaling, we study changes in abundance over time. Posted on 5 Apr
New research reveals diversity of Killer Whales
Long viewed as one worldwide species, killer whale diversity now merits more Scientists have resolved one of the outstanding questions about one of the world's most recognizable creatures, identifying two well-known killer whales in the North Pacific Ocean as separate species. Posted on 31 Mar
Where the Leatherbacks Roam
Leatherbacks commonly swim from the South and Mid-Atlantic Bights during the warmer months Scientists find evidence of critical feeding grounds for endangered leatherback turtles along the U.S. Atlantic coast by studying movement behavior with satellite tags. Posted on 30 Mar
Meet Makana
One of the first Hawaiian Monk Seal Pups of 2024 Hawai'i Marine Animal Response partnered with Kahuku Elementary School to name the first Hawaiian monk seal pup of O'ahu in 2024. Posted on 23 Mar
Marine heatwaves reshape ecosystem
Heatwaves are becoming more frequent and intense in our oceans A new study highlights marine heatwaves' complex and cascading effects on marine ecosystems. While some species may benefit from these changes, others are likely to struggle. Posted on 20 Mar
California Current ecosystem shows resilience
It is facing a strong 2024 El Niño event The 2023-2024 California Current Ecosystem Status Report shows an abundance of forage fish and a productive system fueled by upwelling. Posted on 19 Mar
Some research takes a lifetime
Researchers keep track of Northern Elephant Seals using flipper tags Long-term research under Marine Mammal Protection Act scientific research permits provides insight into northern elephant seal moms and pups. Posted on 17 Mar
Making strides in marine mammal research
NOAA Fisheries and partners celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act 2023 marked the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act. Under this law, NOAA Fisheries is responsible for the conservation and recovery of more than 160 endangered and threatened marine species—including many marine mammals. Posted on 12 Feb
NOAA Fisheries and BOEM release joint strategy
Part of a larger interagency effort to promote recovery of endangered species Today, NOAA Fisheries and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) released a final joint strategy to protect and promote the recovery of endangered North Atlantic right whales while responsibly developing offshore wind energy. Posted on 26 Jan
Documenting the Elusive North Pacific Right Whale
Dive in with the NOAA Fisheries Podcast North Atlantic right whales have justly gotten a lot of attention and news coverage due to their dwindling numbers and sightings along the busy East Coast. Posted on 13 Jan
GJW Direct - Yacht 2019 - FooterPantaenius 2022 - SAIL & POWER 1 FOOTER ROWMarine Products Direct 2023 - Calypso FOOTER