TACOMA – A thousand-pound, 6-year-old beluga whale arrived at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium early Sunday after a flight on a chartered military transport plane from his previous home at Chicago’s John G. Shedd Aquarium.
Qannik, an Inuit name for snowflake, traveled tucked inside an enormous, foam-padded plexiglass tank in the DC-8 plane for a cross-country flight that cost $84,000, according to officials at the Tacoma aquarium.
All told, Point Defiance officials say they paid nearly $120,000 to bring their baby beluga to his new home.
Qannik (pronounced kah-NIK) is the offspring of a female named Mauyak, who left Tacoma for Chicago in 1997. Both whales belong to Point Defiance and are participants in a nationwide cooperative breeding program.
The aquarium kept the timing of Qannik’s move under wraps to stave off protests, officials told the News Tribune of Tacoma for a story posted on the paper’s Web site Sunday.
Some animal rights activists argue whales should not be held in captivity, and they oppose airlifting the marine mammals.
A veterinarian monitored Qannik throughout the trip, Point Defiance officials said Sunday.
“While we are fully prepared for emergencies during transport, the need for medical intervention is highly unlikely,” Dr. Allison Case said in a statement.
Qannik was born in August 2000, a year after the first successful birth of a female beluga at the Shedd. Currently 11 feet long and about 1,000 pounds, Qannik is expected to reach 14 to 16 feet in length and possibly double his weight within a few years.
In Tacoma, he’ll be joining Beethoven, a 14-year-old male beluga who has been swimming solo since his tank mate, Turner, died of a liver malady in September.
Qannik’s trainer from the Shedd Aquarium and his new trainer from Point Defiance each made the 2,000-mile journey with him from Chicago to Tacoma. Veterinarians will determine when Qannik is ready to meet Beethoven.
Qannik’s trainers aren’t in a hurry. They told the News Tribune they may keep him isolated for days, even weeks, if necessary.
Mauyak, whose name means soft snow, arrived in Tacoma in 1984 after being captured from Hudson Bay in Manitoba. She gave birth to two calves at Point Defiance, but both died – the first in 1992 of a malformed respiratory system and the second two years later of drowning when her blow hole opened under water.
The death of the second calf was attributed to Mauyak’s inexperience, so to help her learn by watching other females she was moved to the Chicago aquarium in 1997 as part of a national cooperative breeding program.
She bore another calf that also died soon after birth in 1998, then was successful with Qannik after witnessing several other whales deliver their young.
Beethoven belongs to Sea World and is in Tacoma as part of the breeding program, which involves obtaining semen from male belugas for use in artificial insemination.