The Canadian Press
Published Tuesday, December 25, 2018 12:02 PM EST
Last Update Tuesday, December 25, 2018 12:39 PM EST
SUMMERSIDE, P.E.I. – A group of marine researchers says a young beluga whale is very attached to the maritimes for its own sake.
Nepi, who is about four years old, was spotted in Summerside, P.E., early December for the delight of a local diving class.
"We heard a whale, or what we thought was blowing, and then this whale appeared," recalled Kimball Johnston, instructor of the commercial diving program at Holland College.
The group, which included Johnston and 11 students, thought the whale would swim and keep distance. Instead, Nepi stayed around the divers for several hours.
"He started to turn around and became more curious, diving among the divers and getting closer and closer to the point where he was next to them and they could see him very clearly," he said.
Johnston, who has been diving for over 20 years, said he has never seen a Beluga so close to the island.
While the students were excited to be so close to the whale, Johnston said they did not chase or lure Nepi to stay with them.
"We were there doing our thing and he was there doing his thing," he said. "We were just taking care of our business and he continued to intrude."
Robert Michaud, scientific director of the Quebec-based Marine Mammal Research and Education Group, says it is disturbing to see a young Beluga being friends with people who are away from home – especially when he is a repeat offender, such as Nepi.
Michaud's group first encountered the young whale in June 2017. After receiving a call on a beluga prey at the mouth of the Nepisiguit River in Bathurst, NB, the group coordinated a rescue that involved taking him to the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. , near Cacouna.
Michaud said the rescue was an experiment.
"The Beluga population of St. Lawrence is in decline, they are in danger, so we were wondering if saving an animal would help recover the population," he said. "The animal was not too far from home, it was feasible, so we tried."
The marine research group put a label on Nepi so they could track it, but the naughty whale managed to lose it after about 20 days.
A year after he stepped off the railing, Nepi was spotted by a wildlife photographer in Ingonish, N.S., and the researchers were able to identify the whale by observing the photographs.
Now that the beluga has appeared again in P.E.I., Michaud said he is surprised at the reason why Nepi finds the Maritimes so seductive.
"This young whale would be much better off with its kind in the St. Lawrence area, so we moved it back to Cacouna," he said. "The question is why he came back again. Is it the individual temperament of this guy being adventurous?"
When the Belugas get too close to boats and people, Michaud said that this can often lead to the tragedy of declining species.
Michaud said the Marine Mammal Research and Education Group has heard many cases where a beluga has been hit by a boat or struck by thrusters and killed, which is why it is dangerous to allow them to get too close and encourage them not to. fear people and their ships.
"We do not see what is happening under our boat, so if we were fully aware of three dimensions around our boats it might not be so dangerous," explained Michaud. "But when animals are not cautious, when you move backwards with your boat, accidents happen. So we hope this does not happen to Nepi."
While most belugas live in the Arctic, their southernmost habitat is on the St. Lawrence estuary: a critical habitat for belugas, which are protected by the Canada Species at Risk Act.
As of 2012, the St. Lawrence estuary was home to about 900 belugas – though they say there could be as many as 10,000 belugas in the estuary before 1885.
Michaud urged anyone who sees a beluga south of the estuary to tell the group to try to identify it, adding that although Nepi's headquarters have worried marine experts, he is hopeful that the young whale will return home.
"They are incredible navigators, they have the best underwater radar you can imagine," he said. "P.E.It's a little closer to St. Lawrence than Nova Scotia, so there's no reason to be hopeful.I cross my fingers through it."