On June 26, whale watchers spotted a 15-foot, snow-white beluga whale off the coast of San Diego thousands of miles away from its polar element, reports Erika I. Ritchie for the Orange County Register.
The sighting was the farthest south a beluga has ever been recorded, reports Jason Goldman for National Geographic. The closest known population of belugas is 2,500 miles away in Cook Inlet, Alaska, leaving scientists wondering what the marine mammal was doing so far from the Arctic and sub-Arctic waters it typically frequents.
“It’s a remarkable surprise that nobody would have expected,” Michael Milstein, spokesperson for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, tells the OC Register. “We would like to learn something from this. Everybody is baffled.”
The wayward beluga was captured on video by Gone Whale Watching owner and boat captain Domenic Biagini who flew a drone to get the once in a lifetime shot.
"Imagine if you were going outside to take your dog for a walk and you saw a polar bear," Biagini tells Mark Saunders of local broadcast station ABC 10 San Diego. "It doesn't make any sense at all. I saw it with my own eyes and I'm still not sure I believe it."
Biagini was taking a group of six clients whale watching when he radioed fellow tour captain Lisa LaPointe to check in, Biagini tells National Geographic.
“Dom, we just saw a pearly white, 15-foot animal that didn’t have a dorsal fin,” Biagini tells National Geographic he recalls LaPointe replying. “This is the pearliest white you can imagine.”
LaPointe convinced Biagini to come her way because of his expertise as a drone videographer, knowing that nobody would believe what she’d seen without proof.
After 45 minutes of searching, Biagini caught sight of the beluga about 200 yards in front of his boat, he tells the OC Register.
“I saw half the body pop up, there was no mistaking it,” he tells the OC Register. “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.”
The last time a beluga was seen on the western coast of America’s lower 48 was 1940 when one appeared in waters off Washington State, according to National Geographic. Other surprising sightings have included belugas in Massachusetts and New Jersey in the Atlantic and members of the Russian populations being spotted as far south as Japan.
Alissa Deming, director of clinical medicine at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, California, tells Stephanie Stone of broadcast station ABC 7 Denver that it’s strange the beluga was seen alone because the species is quite social and usually travels in pods.
She adds that the whale, which appears to be an older male, looks to be in good condition and is not thin, but that its presence so far south is worrying.
“As much as I love beluga whales,” Deming tells ABC 7 Denver, “I don’t want to see them off our coast because that means there’s something really wrong with their normal habitat up there in Alaska.”
Speaking with National Geographic, Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a research associate at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, speculates that the whale may have “decided to go on a road trip and it's extra curious, or it could be sick and disoriented.”
Per the OC Register, the last confirmed sighting of the whale was on June 26 when a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter spotted it swimming south off Point Loma.
But National Geographic cites unconfirmed reports that a beluga was seen farther north near the Channel Islands, which are off the coast of Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, on June 30.