Last beluga to leave Point Defiance

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium will lose its remaining beluga to a Texas aquarium, the announcement Wednesday coming less than a month after its other whale died at the aquarium.

Point Defiance officials said 16-year-old Beethoven will return to Sea World in San Antonio, where he was born. He came to Point Defiance 11 years ago from Sea World in San Diego.

Favorites at the zoo’s Rocky Shores aquarium, bulbous-headed white belugas have enthralled and entertained visitors since the mid-1980s. To replace the whales, zoo staff members hope to bring a trio of salmon-eating California sea lions.

“Beethoven has touched millions of lives and been an extraordinary ambassador for whales everywhere during his 11 years here,” said Gary Geddes, director of zoological and environmental education for Metro Parks Tacoma. “While we’re sad about his return to Sea World, we believe that it’s best for Beethoven and the future of the beluga population in zoos and aquariums across the country.”

The move isn’t directly connected to the March 28 death of the zoo’s other beluga, Qannik, Geddes said. Zoo officials announced last Thursday that a bacterial blood infection killed Qannik. Beethoven was not affected and is considered healthy.

Nearly three months before Qannik’s death, Geddes said, the Taxon Advisory Group, which oversees the 35 captive belugas in North America, talked about moving Beethoven into a breeding program.

As a healthy male, Beethoven has the chance to make a significant contribution to the genetic diversity of the species, Geddes said. Beethoven has yet to sire any offspring.

Geddes acknowledged that if Qannik were still alive, Beethoven’s move might have taken longer. But Qannik’s death left Beethoven alone, which isn’t good for social animals like belugas, he said.

“It’s better for him to get with a group,” he said.

Zoo marine biologists and trainers can do a lot to compensate for a beluga’s loss of companionship, Geddes said.

The beluga advisory group thought it made sense for Sea World to move quickly to obtain Beethoven, Geddes said. San Antonio filed a federal request for the transfer. Barring any objections, it could take place anytime after April 29.

Point Defiance will alert the public to the transfer so people can say goodbye to Beethoven before he is shipped by airliner to Texas and his new life, Geddes said.

As for the aquarium getting another beluga, Geddes said that will be up to the advisory committee. At present, no belugas are ready for or need a move.

“Right now there are stable groupings (of belugas) in aquariums,” he said. “It could be quite some time.”

Point Defiance is in the midst of a long-term planning effort about the zoo’s collection and will make recommendations to the Metro Parks Tacoma board in the fall.

Nothing currently rules out a return of belugas, he said.

In the meantime, the zoo has applied for three California sea lions as part of the government effort to trap and remove dozens of the animals, which are feeding on endangered salmon on the Columbia River.

“We have a wonderful opportunity to provide a home for these California sea lions and allow our visitors to see these amazing animals up close,” Geddes said. “There is certainly a story to tell about the sea lions and the salmon.”

The sea lions might come to Point Defiance relatively quickly, or it could take up to a year or more.

Trapping season on the Columbia River ends in June and won’t start again until next spring, when the salmon return.

“We understand the sea lions are becoming trap-wary,” Geddes said.

The animals will require some modification to the beluga aquarium.

In the short term, Geddes said, there is the possibility of mixing and matching the aquarium’s marine mammals in the beluga aquarium, though that also would require changes in the aquarium itself.

Mike Archbold: 253-597-8692