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Beluga's death stirs passions


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 12/02/07

Gasper. Ralph. Norton. And now, Marina.

Marina the beluga whale died Saturday morning, held close by people who had tried to help her in those final hours. She'd stopped eating about two weeks ago and became so disoriented that she hurt her snout while swimming. She had ulcers. Her helpers wept as Marina's heart sounded its final beats.

In death, her name is added to the inventory of large swimmers that have succumbed at the Georgia Aquarium this year.

Gasper, another beluga, died in January. Whale sharks Ralph and Norton followed — Ralph, also in January, and Norton in June. Aquarium officials now say the whale sharks' deaths may have arisen from an "honest mistake" — the addition of a chemical that might have impaired their nervous systems.

The four deaths resurrect the simmering disagreement between those who see the value of having animals on display and people opposed to zoos, aquariums or any facility that keeps animals in exhibits.

Marina's death, said an official with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), was unfortunate — and inevitable. At 25, she was an older beluga, and may not have lived that long in the wild. "Nature," he said, "isn't pretty."

Nor is keeping a whale in a tank, responded an activist with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. "The quality of that whale's life," she said, "was deprived."

In the middle is the Georgia Aquarium, which just celebrated its second anniversary and has enjoyed blockbuster crowds since opening in November 2005. It has been two years of highs — the arrival of whale sharks, the birth of zebra sharks, 6 million visitors, among other signature moments — and lows — veterinarians have now conducted four necropsies on the bottom floor of the world's largest fish tank.

Aquarium president and CEO Jeff Swanagan said he anticipated those necropsies, or animal autopsies.

"You just have to accept that," he said. "These things are to be expected."

Four high-profile deaths in a year?

That, he said, might have been unexpected.


Stress or safety?

Delphinapterus leucas are social animals. White and graceful, they form communities in seas atop the world. They move in pods, relying on a natural sonar system to navigate waters silvered by glacial runoff. An estimated 200,000 live in the wild, with about 200 on display across the world. Some scientists say they live to be 35 in the wild, while others think the lifespan is greater.

Biologist Courtney Vail, a U.S. campaign officer for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, thinks the captive belugas don't enjoy the qualify of life as their free-swimming peers. Wild-born whales taken for displays miss their fellow travelers, Vail said.

"When you put them in a tank, you take them out of their communities," said Vail, who also is a lawyer. "Stress is certainly a factor in their long-term lives in captivity."

Marina's ulcers, she said, may have been proof of that stress. "She was isolated for our enjoyment," Vail said.

Paul Boyle, a vice president for conservation with the AZA, disagrees. Marina, he said, enjoyed a privileged life — regular feedings, safety from predators and perpetual care. She also was an ambassador for an entire species, introducing millions of humans to marine mammals, he said.

"Nobody works harder to keep animals safe and happy as [zoos and aquariums] do," Boyle said. "Life in the wild is full of peril."

Life at an aquarium or zoo isn't guaranteed, Swanagan added.

"It's the cycle of life," said Swanagan, warming to a theme he's used before. "You have births. You have deaths."


'Wonderful animal'

Marina weighed as much as a mature Holstein cow. She was as round as culvert, the length of a rowboat — 12 feet from her wedged tail to the tip of her bulbous nose. Marina appeared to smile, a trait belugas share. Watching her swim from around the corner of her rocky enclosure was like witnessing a happy genie emerge from a bottle.

Marina came from the Wildlife Conservation Society's New York Aquarium, arriving in November 2005. "She was a wonderful animal," that aquarium said in a statement Saturday.

With Marina were females Natasha and Maris. Waiting for the trio were Nico and Gasper, who came from a Mexican amusement park. Aquarium officials placed the five in Arctic Quest, a rock-lined tank where the water is always about 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Thus began the aquarium's own quest: to create a calf, a baby beluga. Since then, say aquarium officials, Nico has frequently mated with Maris, the youngest at 13. Natasha is the oldest, 28.

Gasper had a bone disease, and never mated. The aquarium euthanized him in January after determining that he would not recover from his affliction. They ended his life quietly, with tears and recollections of the whale who waved his flippers at visitors.

Gasper's demise, Swanagan said, was hardly a surprise. Marina's sudden decline in health, he said, has employees stumped.

It also befuddled visitors who came to the aquarium Saturday.

"They want to know what she died of," said John Doiron, an employee hosting the beluga exhibit. "I tell them we don't know yet."

Kennesaw mom Margie Cundy decided to keep news of Marina's death quiet. Her son Ross was celebrating his seventh birthday, and she didn't want to spoil his fun.

"I didn't mention that to my children because I didn't think they needed to know," she said.


Births, deaths

Ralph and Norton were majestic animals, too. They'd come from Taiwan, transported across the world to a tank built specifically for Rhincondon typus, the world's largest fish. They debuted amid gasps, and small wonder. How many people had ever seen a fish longer than a stretch limo?

But something went wrong, and both fish stopped eating, prompting the aquarium to feed each with a tube. Swanagan now thinks the aquarium may have harmed the sharks' nervous systems with a chemical treatment for the tank's water. Ralph died in January, days after Gasper was euthanized. Norton lasted for six more months until the aquarium euthanized him in June.

The chemical treatment, said Swanagan, "was an honest mistake."

Now, Swanagan said, he wants aquarium employees to remember Marina, while keeping in mind they still have hundreds of species in their care.

"You want to have births and births and births," he said. "But you have to deal with the deaths at some point."

The aquarium, he said, is ready for a few more births, a few less deaths.

Staff writers Jennifer Brett and Jeffry Scott contributed to this article.

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