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 4 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.