French rescuers race to save beluga whale spotted in Seine river near Paris

Whale seems calm but is a long way inland

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Rescuers are struggling to guide to safety a beluga whale that strayed into the Seine river in France.

The animal, which strayed from its Arctic habitat, has been spotted near Paris, many tens of kilometres inland.

French authorities tracking the beluga whale fear it could starve if it stays in the river, which flows through Paris to the English Channel.

Belugas’ pale skin and bulbous foreheads make them easily recognisable. Known also for their sociability, they habitually live, hunt and migrate together in pods.

Drone footage shot by French fire services showed the whale gently meandering along a stretch of the river’s light green waters between Paris and the Normandy city of Rouen.

“It is quite an impressive animal, which is white [and] which seems calm. It doesn’t seem stressed, surfacing regularly,” fire service officer Patrick Herot, from Normandy’s Eure region, told French broadcaster TF1.

Marine conservation group Sea Shepherd France said it was scrambling to assist the whale, sending drones and a boat to track it. It said the whale would probably need food and help to guide it back towards its natural ocean habitat.

“It is condemned to die if it stays in the Seine,” Lamya Essemlali, the group’s president, told TF1.

A tourist boat makes it way along the River Seine near the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Reuters

“The environment is not very welcoming for the beluga. The Seine is very polluted and cetaceans are extremely sensitive to noise.”

Ms Essemlali said the Seine was “very noisy”.

The whale was first spotted on Tuesday. French rescue services, firefighters and biodiversity officials mobilised swiftly and kept a close eye on the beluga whale throughout the day to evaluate the “worrying” health of the mammal, the local prefecture said.

It said the whale seemed to have “skin changes and to be underweight”.

Gerard Mauger, deputy head of French Marine Mammal Research Group GEEC, said the mammal spent “very little time on the surface” and appeared to have “good” lung capacity.

But Mr Mauger said rescuers were struggling to guide the whale to the mouth of the Seine.

Officials did not specify the size, but an adult beluga can reach up to four metres in length. Authorities in Normandy's Eure department urged people to keep their distance to avoid distressing the animal.

In late May, a killer whale — also known as an orca, but technically part of the dolphin family — died in the Seine, between Le Havre and Rouen, after it was unable to make its way back to the ocean despite attempts by officials to guide it.

Ms Essemlali said there was an urgency to feed the beluga whale “to prevent it from suffering the same fate as the orca [that] died after starving to death”.

Authorities in Eure said lone belugas did swim further south than usual at times, and were able to temporarily survive in fresh water.

While they migrate away from the Arctic in the autumn to feed as ice forms, they rarely venture so far south.

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Updated: August 05, 2022, 11:21 AM
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