France readies rescue of beluga whale astray in Seine

Members of the Sea Shepherd NGO looks at a beluga whale near a river lock in Notre-Dame-de-la-Garenne on Aug 8. PHOTO: AFP

RENNES, FRANCE (AFP) - Marine experts attempted on Tuesday (Aug 9) to rescue a beluga whale that swam up the Seine river and return it to the sea, a complex and risky operation for an animal already sick and malnourished.

The 4m cetacean, a protected species usually found in cold Arctic waters, was spotted a week ago heading towards Paris, and was already some 130km inland.

The animal's progress inland was blocked by a lock at Saint-Pierre-La-Garenne in Normandy, and its health deteriorated after it refused to eat.

But its condition was currently "satisfactory", said Ms Isabelle Brasseur of the Marineland sea animal park in southern France, Europe's biggest. She was part of a Marineland team sent to assist with the rescue, alongside the Sea Shepherd France non-governmental organisation.

"What's exceptional is that here the banks of the Seine are not accessible for vehicles… Everything is going to have to be done by hand," Ms Brasseur said.

The beluga had not turned around, and experts dismissed any attempt to "nudge" it back toward the English Channel with boats, saying it would stress the weakened animal and probably be futile in any case.

Starting at around 8pm Paris time, the team would try to get the animal, weighing 800kg, onto a truck and drive it to an undisclosed seawater basin where it can be treated before being released.

Sea Shepherd said on Tuesday that tranquilisation was not an option, since belugas are so-called voluntary breathers that need to be awake to inhale air.

"In any case, we have to get it out of there… and try to figure out what is wrong," Ms Brasseur said.

Veterinarians would keep constant surveillance during the move.

"There may be internal problems that we can't see," said Ms Brasseur, despite the fact that belugas are "extremely hardy" as a species.

Interest in the beluga's fate has spread far beyond France, generating a large influx of financial donations and other aid from conservation groups, as well as individuals.

Sea Shepherd on Monday issued an appeal in particular for heavy-duty ropes, nets, mattresses and other equipment.

Belugas are normally found only in cold Arctic waters, and while they migrate south in the autumn to feed as ice forms, they rarely venture so far.

According to France's Pelagis Observatory, specialised in sea mammals, the nearest beluga population is off the Svalbard archipelago, north of Norway, 3,000km from the Seine.

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