Even the Coast Guard is looking for a beluga whale sighted off coast of San Diego

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(Tribune News Service) — Marine mammal experts and federal officials are stumped by what’s believed to be the first-ever West Coast sighting of a beluga whale off San Diego.

Typically, beluga whales are found at the North Pole and along Russia’s northern coast — some 8,000 miles away from the Southern California coast.

“It’s a remarkable surprise that nobody would have expected,” said Michael Milstein, spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “We would like to learn something from this. Everybody is baffled.”

The 15-foot pearly white whale was last seen on June 26, by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crew that spotted it in the afternoon swimming south just off Point Loma.

NOAA and other marine mammal experts were first alerted to the discovery after Domenic Biagini, a whale watching charter captain, filmed it with his drone as it swam seven miles off Mission Bay.

Biagini, who operates Gone Whale Watching San Diego, was on an early morning cruise when he got a tip from Chris Faist, a school teacher and wildlife photographer, and Lisa LaPointe, another San Diego-area whale watching captain. The two contacted Biagini because he is known for his drone wildlife photography.

“I know Lisa’s knowledge is unmatched,” Biagini said, when she reported she had just seen a whale that was 15-feet-long, had no dorsal fin and was perfect pearly white. “She said they kept seeing it but couldn’t get near it. It was taking deep dives and was really skittish and shy.”

Biagini was reluctant to disrupt his charter to go on a hunt for something he may not find. So, he moved on.

“She called me again and bluntly said, ‘This is a beluga!’ ” he said.

Biagini traveled toward the location LaPointe described. Once there, the boats couldn’t get within a mile of the whale. Then, the whale disappeared for at least 30 minutes.

As Biagini traveled west, suddenly the beluga appeared just 200 yards in front of his boat.

“I saw half the body pop up, there was no mistaking it,” he said. “It was perfect, pearly white and in perfect condition. It might have even looked up. I’ve filmed a lot of things, but I’ve never had the feeling I did when I looked at my screen. I knew it was history.”

His video has gone viral since he posted it, leading marine mammal experts around the globe to weigh in.

“This has never been reported,” said Dr. Hendrik Nollens, a marine veterinarian who heads up research and science conservation at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach. “They simply don’t belong here.”

Belugas are pure white to blend in with the ice in the Arctic. Their skin is spongy so that they aren’t cut on the ice. Unlike other whales and dolphin, they are able to rotate their necks and can actually turn to look at their fluke.

Nollens, who treated beluga whales while working at SeaWorld, said there have been some other odd beluga sightings, including one found swimming the River Thames near London and one off the coast of Norway in 2019. The whale in Norway was wearing a harness with a camera and label that said “Equipment St. Petersburg.” Animal rescuers later freed the whale from its gear. It remained near Hammerfest Harbour for a while.

“It was clearly a trained animal and people on boats were playing fetch-the-ball with it,” Nollens said.

NOAA has some data of other wayward beluga whales on the East Coast. They traveled the St. Lawrence River in Canada south.

Robert Brownell, a senior scientist for international protected marine resources for NOAA, is also familiar with beluga whales.

He said it’s likely the whale may have come from a population that is resident to Cook Inlet in Alaska. There is also another population that is 500 miles east there, otherwise, most live further north.

“People started studying whales and dolphins when California became a state,” he said. “For an animal to be outside it range like this is the rarest sighting in 150 years.”

Experts said the whale’s body and skin appear in good condition, which indicates it is finding food despite being so far out of its range and in much warmer water.

“Looks like it’s making a living for itself,” Brownell said.

NOAA officials are asking boaters to keep their eyes out for the white whale.

If you observe this beluga, officials ask people to remain at least 100 yards away, note the location (GPS coordinates are best), and call the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network at 866-767-6114 or 562-506-4315, or hail USCG on VHF Channel 16.

©2020 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)
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