SAINT-PIERRE-LA-GARENNE, FRANCE (AFP, REUTERS) - An ailing beluga whale stranded in the Seine river in northern France for more than a week has died during an attempt to rescue it.
“Despite an unprecedented rescue operation, we must announce with sadness that the cetacean has died,” local officials in the Normandy region of Calvados tweeted on Wednesday (Aug 10), adding that the whale had to be put down during transport.
The whale died as it was being transported to a seawater basin in the channel port of Ouistreham, where it was supposed to be treated before its release back to the sea.
A fire department veterinarian said the beluga was euthanised, after it developed breathing complications.
The rescue attempt had been a risky venture for the whale, but marine conservation group Sea Shepherd France had warned that the malnourished whale would not survive in the warm, freshwater river environment.
It took nearly six hours before the 800kg cetacean could be lifted at dawn on Wednesday from the river by a net and crane and placed on a barge under the immediate care of a dozen veterinarians.
The plan was for the beluga, a protected species usually found in cold Arctic waters, to be placed in a refrigerated truck and transported to the coast.
After its removal from the Seine, officials warned of the animal’s poor health.
“The veterinarians are not necessarily optimistic,” Ms Isabelle Dorliat-Pouzet, a senior official from the Eure prefecture, told BFM TV. “It’s horribly thin for a beluga, and that does not bode well for its life expectancy in the medium term.”
The 4m whale was spotted more than a week ago heading towards Paris and was stranded some 130km inland from the Channel at Saint-Pierre-La-Garenne in Normandy.
Since Friday (Aug 5), its movement inland had been blocked by a lock at Saint-Pierre-La-Garenne, 70km north-west of Paris, and its health had deteriorated after it refused to eat.
But its condition on Tuesday (Aug 9) was "satisfactory", said Ms Isabelle Brasseur, part of a Marineland team sent to assist with the rescue.
The "exceptional" operation to return it to the sea was not without risk for the whale, which was already weakened and stressed, said Ms Brasseur.
"It could be that he dies now, during the handling, during the journey or at point B," she said before the rescue efforts began.
The 24 divers involved in the operation and the rescuers handling the ropes had to try several times between 10pm and 4am to lure the animal into the nets to be lifted out of the water.
A handful of curious people remained on the bank all night to observe the operation.
In September 2018, a beluga was spotted in the River Thames east of London, in what was then the most southerly sighting of a beluga on British shores.
Beluga whales typically live in pods in Arctic waters.