Beluga Whale Calf

Last month a 2-day-old beluga whale found stranded off the coast of Bristol Bay in Alaska died just weeks after the animal was rescued — despite marine experts’ best efforts to save the orphaned baby.

In May the first beluga whale born at the Georgia Aquarium lived less than a week.

And last year a pair of 2-month-old bottlenose dolphins at the National Aquarium in Baltimore died within days of each other.

These tragic stories are sadly not uncommon, begging the question: Does living or being born into a captive environment make it harder for infant marine mammals to survive?

Surprising Statistics

“Marine mammals, in general, have very high infant mortality rates, whether they’re in wild or captive environments,” says Dr. Sam Dover, DVM, chief veterinarian and president of the Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute, a nonprofit rescue organization. “For example, 50 percent of first-time bottlenose dolphin moms lose their babies in the wild.”

But the survival rate in captivity is much better, adds Dr. Michael Walsh, DVM, assistant director for aquatic animal health services at the University of Florida. “In the wild, no one can step in when things go wrong,” he says. “In managed environments, we can intervene when needed to help increase survival rates.”

But this hasn’t always been the case.

“Prior to the 1960s and 1970s, very few facilities had marine mammals in managed environments, “ says Dr. Walsh. “Therefore, the education level and experience of the experts dealing with the baby animals was extremely low, and many assumptions were made. As a result, the survival rates were also low.”

Over the past four decades, as the population of marine wildlife under human care has increased, there’s been a massive learning curve in the field.

“Today, we know enough to predict when things are going wrong,” says Dr. Walsh. “We have timetables for every step of the process, from when they start labor to how fast the calves should be moving. And we know when and how to step in to prevent or solve a potential problem.”

Bottlenose Dolphin Calf

Unique Challenges

“When a mother gives birth, there are times when visually everything looks like it’s going great — the kid’s in the right spot, milk is observed and bonding is taking place — but maybe it’s not a strong baby,” says Dr. Walsh. “In some cases, you can have all the information and all the experience possible, but the baby is just not going to do well.”

Dealing with a first-time mother in captivity can also be tricky.

“At some facilities, there’s a smaller chance that females will have been exposed to other females of their species giving birth,” says Dr. Walsh.

As a result, mom might not be equipped to do the best job of caring for her young, potentially abandoning the calf. And this can make saving the baby even more difficult.

“When you don’t have another animal to adopt the kid, and you can’t bring the mom around no matter what, then you have to pull the calf, and have a group of experts providing 24-hour care,” says Dr. Walsh. “You have to have the right formula to substitute for the mother’s milk, the right people, the right environment and the right social structure. All of these things have to come together for success.”

It’s a tough job, but it’s well worth the hard work for Dr. Dover. “What we’ve learned just by working with these animals in captivity has had a huge impact on what we can do with them in the wild,” he says. “And the goal, of course, is to put them back in the wild.”

This is one of the reasons why Dr. Dover started the Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute: “To me, no matter where an animal lives, we have to help it.”