YARMOUTHPORT – Southeastern Massachusetts had an unlikely visitor recently.
A rare sighting of a beluga whale was confirmed in the Taunton River on June 18, and marine officials are still getting reports of the whale in the area.
Brian Sharp of the International Fund for Animal Welfare said it is not every day you see a beluga in a local river.
“This is the first time we’ve ever had a report there. This is only the third confirmed report of a beluga whale in Massachusetts in the last ten years,” he said.
The other two previous sightings were in Cape Cod Bay and north of the Cape, so this was the furthest south for a sighting.
Belugas are distinct in appearance. A completely white whale with a bulbous head., belugas do not have a dorsal fin. Instead they have a dorsal ridge.
After officials confirmed the beluga on June 18, on the following Saturday, June 21, a beluga whale was spotted and documented in Gloucester Harbor, Sharp said. But because the photos were taken at a distance, they were unable to confirm if the whale seen off Gloucester was the same animal or if there are two belugas in local waters.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare, or IFAW, is based in Yarmouthport. The agency’s staffers are involved in a regional marine animal stranding network.
Sharp said his agency received their first reports from a boater of sightings of the whale on June 17 far up the Taunton River. Subsequently, they received a number of cell phone photos and videos that they were unable to confirm as a beluga whale.
On June 18, the agency by using aircraft and one of their vessels was able to confirm that there was, in fact, a beluga whale in the Taunton River.
They were also able to monitor the animal and get a size estimate of 12- to 14-feet in length with a weight of a maximum of 2,000 pounds.
Due to the color and size, they believe the whale to be an adult beluga.
“It’s a very large, very good-sized animal,” Sharp said.
IFAW staff were able to follow the animal for about three and a half miles as the whale swam south and stayed fairly close to shore as it swam into Battleship Cove and under the USS Massachusetts.
Agency officials were concerned the whale would become disoriented in the cove but that did not happen.
“The animal seemed to be showing signs that it was very aware of its environment and swimming strong,” Sharp said.
While IFAW officials were observing it, the animal did swim out of the river.
The closest year-round habitat for beluga whales is the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, meaning the whale had traveled over 1,000 miles to get to the Taunton River.
Typically belugas do occur in groups but traveling singly is not unheard of, Sharp said.
Sharp said they cannot be sure if the sightings are all of the one confirmed animal or if there are multiple whales in the area.
Subsequently, IFAW has received additional reports of sightings in the Taunton River but have not been able to confirm them.
The beluga is a protected marine mammal, so the agency is asking boaters to exercise caution if they see the whale. Boaters are to maintain a distance of at least 150 feet.
The agency is asking the general public if they have any more sightings to call the Stranding Hotline or the local stranding agency so the agency can continue to monitor the whale and monitor its health.
While the animal has not stranded, the agency is keeping an eye on it because with the local waters becoming warmer, the whale may begin to have difficulty in the warmer waters.
“This is a species that is found much further north in cooler waters,” Sharp said.
The sea surface temperatures in the Taunton River and the Gulf of St. Lawrence are about 10 to 15 degrees apart right now, but as the season progresses, that difference will become even greater, Sharp said.
The agency is no longer actively searching for the whale but is relying on sightings by the general public and has also notified harbormasters in the area.
To report sightings of the beluga or any marine mammal strandings, call IFAW at 508-743-9548.