SUMMERSIDE, P.E.I.- A class of student divers had a peculiar apprentice last week – a beluga whale they nicknamed Crosby.
Kimball Johnston’s commercial diving class was completing some mid-depth training in the Summerside Harbour on Dec. 7.
When they first spotted the whale, they didn’t expect such a close encounter.
However, once the students got in the water, the whale approached.
“He was quite curious. He started diving down to our divers and doing loops,” said Johnston, who has been a diver for decades and has never seen a beluga in the harbour before.
“At first the guys were – I wouldn’t say concerned - but aware he was there. He just kept getting closer and closer and he didn’t seem aggressive. Then he started diving right down with the divers and hanging mid-water and allowing the divers to reach out and touch him. They were petting him and playing with him a little bit.”
The whale stayed with the team for the entire exercise from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. In the switchover, when the first team exited the water, he left, but when the second group got in, the whale returned.
The students were building a Crosby eye – an assembly of clips and wire – underwater during the encounter so they named the whale Crosby.
Johnston sent video of the whale to experts at the Quebec branch of the Canadian Marine Animal Response Alliance, the Réseau québécois d'urgences pour les mammifères marins.
It turns out Crosby is actually Nepisiguit, a young male beluga rescued from the Nepisiguit river near Bathurst, N.B., in 2017.
Nepi, as he’s been nicknamed, was airlifted home to the Saint Lawrence river after he became thin and dehydrated in the New Brunswick estuary.
The St. Lawrence Estuary beluga is endangered. While there is a healthy beluga population in the Arctic, the St. Lawrence group is genetically different, said Tonya Wimmer, who is with the Marine Animal Response Society in Halifax.
While it is odd to see an individual whale so far from home, they do travel a little bit and are very curious by nature, especially when they’re wandering, she said.
“It’s a little bit concerning, them wanting to seek out and check out people, more so because it puts them in harm’s way.”
Wimmer said belugas sometimes investigate bubbles from boat propellers or linger in busy harbours which puts them at risk of a boat strike. It’s important not to encourage the curious creatures to interact with people as sometimes the belugas will stick around looking for attention.
And it’s not ideal, said Wimmer.
“They’re not doing the things these animals would naturally be out doing - swimming around, feeding, finding mates, playing with their peers.”
Nepi appears to have learned his lesson after his prolonged stay in Bathurst. Although he continues to wander, he doesn’t stay any one place for long.
After Nepi was returned to the Saint Lawrence Estuary, he and a friend were spotted near Ingonish, off Cape Breton Island earlier this fall.
He hasn’t been spotted since Dec. 7, so he may have moved on again.
Groups are monitoring his movements. If anyone sees a whale, keep back 100 meters and, if possible, snap a photo and call the Marine Animal Response Society at 1-866-567-6277.
Five fast facts about belugas
-St. Lawrence Estuary beluga are endangered
-Only adults are white, while baby belugas are brown or grey
-Belugas can live to be 75 years old
-Adult belugas can weigh up to 1,900 kg
-Adult belugas can grow to 2.6 to 4.5 metres