Shedd Aquarium handlers help him surface, feed after birth
This photo released Tuesday by Chicago's Shedd Aquarium shows a new male beluga whale born on Monday swimming with his mother Puiji at the aquarium. The 162 pound, 5-feet, 4-inches long baby was born head first, which is rare for beluga whales, who are usually born tail first. (Photo courtesy of Shedd Aquarium / December 15, 2009)
Survival for a newborn beluga whale at the Shedd Aquarium remains a question mark as the little male tries to overcome birthing complications that forced four divers into his pool in a desperate move to get him to the surface to take his first breath.
The newborn, a 162-pound, 5-foot-4-inch calf, was a breech birth, coming out of the womb of his mother, 23-year-old Puiji, head first rather than tail first during a seven-hour delivery early Monday.
The birth probably caused an unnatural curve in his flukes -- his large rear flippers -- which could result in longer-term problems, Shedd officials said.
"As soon as we saw this was going to be a breech birth, we put four divers into the pool to assist if they needed to," said Ken Ramirez, the Shedd's senior vice president for animal collections.
When the baby emerged completely from his mother at 6:36 a.m. Monday, it appeared limp and was unable to reach the surface on its own, Ramirez said. Breech births among belugas are not uncommon, he said, and in the past most of the babies soon died because of their inability to swim to the surface and their mother's inability to lift them to the surface.
"We now train for this possibility" of breech births, Ramirez said, "and when this baby showed it was in trouble, our divers moved in and lifted him to the surface, holding him until he began to breathe."
Puiji then took over and was able to keep him swimming and breathing for several hours, but he seemed unable to dive and thus unable to nurse, and he eventually began to slow down and list to his side. He also showed signs of stomach distress, raising concern because it had not been able to defecate, something newborns must do within hours of birth.
Handlers intervened again, milking Puiji and giving the calf his first feeding, administering electrolytes and antibiotics to him, and gave him an enema.
"That seemed to do the trick," Ramirez said. "All night long and early Tuesday morning, he was full of energy, passing gas, defecating, swimming and beginning to learn how to dive."
During a normal birth, when the tail comes out first, it hangs outside the mother for two to five hours before the rest of the baby emerges, Ramirez said, and the theory is in that time the soft cartilage in the flukes harden and stiffen, allowing it to swim strongly immediately. In a breech birth, the tail comes out too soft and limp to allow swimming.
This baby's tail curled into a slightly unnatural curve, which, as it hardened, may have left it in a shape that impeded his ability to dive, Ramirez said. By 6:15 a.m. Tuesday, however, he had learned to overcome the impediment and nursed milk from Puiji for the first time.
"He swims a little erratically, and since 6:15 a.m. he has been nursing regularly, which is very encouraging," Ramirez said. "The flukes are not so different that our guests might notice it, and I think because he is here and we can control a lot of things around him, it is not a major concern."
The baby will remain under constant observation for the next several days because it is impossible to know if he is getting sufficient nourishment from his mother. They are off view for the next few months.
"There were some pretty tense and difficult moments in the first day of this little guy's life," Ramirez said. "I would say with quite a bit of certainty that is very unlikely he would have survived had we not intervened."
Baby beluga survives rough 1st day -- chicagotribune.com