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Rescuers face race against time to rescue beluga whale in France’s River Seine

“If we don’t feed him quickly, it’s hopeless,” said Lamya Essemlali, the head of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which is helping with the rescue effort. “He will die.”
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PARIS —  Emergency services in France are facing a race against time to save a beluga whale that has swum into the River Seine and is heading south toward Paris.

“It is puzzling for sure,” Emmanuel Pasco-Viel, the operations coordinator in Normandy’s l’Eure prefecture, told NBC News Friday. 

The beluga, an endangered species that is better suited to freezing arctic and subarctic waters, was first spotted Tuesday, said Pasco-Viel, who is responsible for monitoring it.

He added that firefighters, police officers and members of the military have been brought in to help guide the whale back into its natural saltwater habitat, along with the coast guard. 

“We had a helicopter fly over the waters to help us track the beluga,” he said. “Even drones are used. We will decide what is the best way to help the beluga, and how to guide it back to sea.”

He added that on Wednesday the creature had been “stationary for three-four hours and I was able to observe it from the boats when it emerged to breathe.”

Locals have been warned to give a wide berth to the beluga to avoid stressing it further, he said.  

Lamya Essemlali, the head of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which is helping with the rescue effort, said they were concerned because the whale was “extremely skinny.”  

“If we don’t feed him quickly, it’s hopeless,” she said. “He will die.” 

She added that they were trying to lure the mammal back to the mouth of the Seine with a diet of fresh fish. 

“If we just drive him to the sea from the Seine, his chances of survival are weak,” she said, adding that scientists will try to get DNA samples to work out where the whale is from — likely Canada, Norway or Russia.  Once that is determined, she said she hoped they could transport him home by plane. 

Recognizable by their white skin and bulbous heads, beluga whales are normally between 13 to 20 feet long, according to the U.S.’ National Ocean Service, which also notes they are sociable and friendly creatures that normally travel in pods. However, lone ones sometimes venture farther south and can temporarily survive in freshwater. 

It is not clear how this beluga whale ended up in the Seine, whose polluted waters and heavy river traffic add additional threats to the whale’s outlook. 

“It’s a total mystery how it got there,” said Liz Sandeman, the co-founder of Marine Connection, a British marine wildlife conservation group that is helping to provide information to French authorities.   

“You just don’t expect to see a beluga whale near a European capital city,” she added.

“This beluga whale is extremely far from home,” she said. “It will be dehydrated, it won’t really be feeding, and it’s much too far south.” 

She added that there was “another solitary beluga whale in Norway,” but “even that is too far south.”   

Pasco-Viel added that there had been “three separate incidents of mammals leaving the sea to be discovered in the French rivers” in the past three months.

In May, an orca died in the Seine after attempts failed to lure it back to the ocean using a drone emitting whale sounds. It was later found to be suffering from mucormycosis, a fungal disease that starts in the skin before attacking vital organs.

Then, in June, a 33-foot Minke whale was spotted in the Seine, but it returned to the sea after its brief sojourn into the river. 

Sightings of whales, dolphins and walruses are likely to be more common in areas across Europe given the onset of climate change, Sandeman said. 

“With ice melting, animals are able to access locations they were only previously able to get to once or twice per year. Now animals are seeking out new locations and waters further afield. Migration patterns are changing. Climate change isn’t everything, but it’s definitely having an effect,” she said.

Nancy Ing reported from Paris and Leila Sackur from London.