Rescuers are in a race against time to save a beluga whale in France’s Seine river

PARIS — Rescue services in France are facing a race against time to rescue a beluga whale that has swum into the Seine and is heading south toward Paris.

“It’s definitely confusing,” Emmanuel Pasco-Viel, the operations coordinator in the Normandy prefecture of l’Eure, told NBC News on Friday.

The beluga, an endangered species better suited to freezing Arctic and subarctic waters, was sighted for the first time on Tuesday, said Pasco-Viel, who is in charge of monitoring.

He added that firefighters, police and military personnel were called in to help guide the whale back to its natural saltwater habitat alongside the coast guard.

“We had a helicopter fly over the water to help us track the beluga,” he said. “Even drones are used. We will decide how best to help the beluga and lead it back to sea.”

He added that the creature “was stationary for three to four hours on Wednesday and I could watch it from the boats as it came up to breathe.”

Locals have been warned to give the beluga a wide berth so as not to emphasize it further, he said.

Lamya Essemlali, director of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which is helping with the rescue effort, said they were concerned because the whale was “extremely thin”.

“If we don’t feed him quickly, it’s hopeless,” she said. “He will die.”

She added that they tried to lure the mammal back to the Seine estuary with a diet of fresh fish.

“If we just drive it from the Seine to the sea, its chances of survival are slim,” she said, adding that scientists will try to get DNA samples to find out where the whale came from – probably Canada, Norway or Russia . Once that’s established, she said she hopes they can plane him home.

Recognizable by their white skin and bulbous heads, beluga whales are typically between 13 and 20 feet long, according to the U.S. National Ocean Service, which also notes that they are gregarious and friendly creatures that typically travel in pods. However, solitary animals sometimes venture further south and can temporarily survive in fresh water.

It’s not clear how this beluga whale got into the Seine, whose polluted waters and heavy river traffic further threaten the whale’s prospects.

“It’s an absolute mystery how it got there,” said Liz Sandeman, co-founder of Marine Connection, a British marine wildlife conservation group that helps provide information to French authorities.

“You just don’t expect to see a beluga whale anywhere near a European capital,” she added.

“This beluga whale is extremely far from home,” she said. “It’ll be dehydrated, it won’t really eat, and it’s way too far south.”

She added that there was “another lone beluga whale in Norway,” but “even that’s too far south.”

Pasco-Viel added that in the last three months there have been “three separate incidents of mammals leaving the sea to be discovered in French rivers”.


In May, an orca died in the Seine after failed attempts to lure it back to the sea using a drone that emitted whale sounds. It was later found to be suffering from mucormycosis, a fungal disease that starts in the skin before attacking vital organs.

Then, in June, a 33-foot minke whale was sighted in the Seine, but it returned to sea after its brief stay in the river.

Whale, dolphin and walrus sightings are likely to become more common in areas across Europe as climate change sets in, Sandeman said.

“The melting of the ice allows animals to reach places that previously they could only reach once or twice a year. Animals are now looking for new places and waters far away. Migration patterns are changing. Climate change isn’t everything, but it’s definitely having an impact,” she said.

Nancy Ing reported from Paris and Leila Sackur from London.

Associated Press contributed. Rescuers are in a race against time to save a beluga whale in France’s Seine river

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