Aug 28, 2019 -
The beluga whale (“Hvaldimir”) that first appeared in Hammerfest May 1, 2019 was taken in charge by Norwegian Orca Survey (NOS) in collaboration with Hammerfest Kommune on May 16, 2019 and upon receiving permission from Fiskeridirektoratet. During the period from May 16th through July 19th, the whale remained in Hammerfest harbor. Daily tasks were insured by a team of volunteers and consisted in feeding the animal following strict hygiene protocols and husbandry training in order to promote animal welfare and recovery of body condition (weight). Food base was kept flexible and was adjusted daily in order to promote natural foraging. Monitoring Hvaldimir’s underwater activities using camera tags revealed an increased interest in live fish over time even though effective prey consumption could not be confirmed. Education of the tourists and general public constituted the second major task of the team onsite. Reduction of risks was a continually priority and several modifications to access zones and watercraft use were implemented to insure animal and human safety.
Against all expectations, the whale was reported missing from Hammerfest harbor on July 19 at 18:00. There were indications that the whale had been lured out by locals onboard a small vessel, even though this could not be confirmed. The whale was then located on Seiland, the island across Hammerfest, a few hours later. Because all logistics for daily care of Hvaldimir were set up in Hammerfest, the team tried guiding the whale back from Seiland to Hammerfest on the following days, but all attempts failed.
Due to challenging logistics in remote places where the whale has been traveling and in order to prevent conditioning the whale to stay in unwanted locations, Hvaldimir has not been fed since July 20. In meeting obligations to ensure animal welfare, NOS has maintained at least one team member directly observing Hvaldimir every other day to evaluate his apparent condition and behavior, and to assess potential foraging. A motivated network of people living and working at various points around Seiland have largely facilitated this challenging task. This network has been crucial to informing NOS of his movements and locations to facilitate the critical monitoring program.
In 30 days, Hvaldimir has travelled a minimum of 600 km, stopped-over at docks in six locations and seven fish-farms on and around Seiland. Despite termination of the feeding program, Hvaldimir shows an overall satisfactory body condition and energy level. Therefore, we can assume that the whale has been feeding on his own. Due to constant migration between remote locations, no intensive behavioral monitoring could be done and, consequently, it remains unknown if this apparent natural feeding is sustainable long-term. Although his current body weight is acceptable (although slim), gradual loss of body condition could be anticipated if food intake is insufficient.
Hereby, we wish to inform about challenges and risks that appear tied to the current setting. While being deprived from conspecifics, Hvaldimir appears to fulfil his social needs by interacting with people in all locations he is traveling through. This is usually very much appreciated by people. However, Hvaldimir is vulnerable to inappropriate human behaviors that could jeopardize his welfare and survival. We expect Hvaldimir to be in close association with people and boats for as long as he lives. Hvaldimir is also highly exposed to predation by killer whales. This will be especially true during the winter months of increased killer whale presence in the area of Skjervøy following seasonal peak of herring abundance.
NOS recommends maintaining a part-time monitoring of Hvaldimir’s behavior and condition in the coming months, logistics dependent (the whale may be traveling to unreachable remote places). Monitoring protocols that will aim at assessing Hvaldimir’s feeding behavior and overall condition overtime are currently being developped. At this time, NOS does not support sending the whale to a zoological institution, nor enclosing it in a sheltered fjord, since the animal appears to be feeding himself and managing his independence in an unlimited natural habitat.