Published Tuesday, December 25, 2018, 12:02 EST
Last Updated Tuesday, December 25, 2018, 12:39 EST
SUMMERSIDE, P.E.I. – A group of marine researchers say young belugas are too attached to the Maritimes for their own good.
Nepi, who is estimated to be around four years old, was seen in Summerside, P.E.I., in early December, was very pleasant for local diving classes.
"We heard a whale, or what we thought was something blowing, and then this whale appeared," recalled Kimball Johnston, an instructor at the Holland College commercial diving program.
The group, including Johnston and 11 students, thought the whale would swim away and keep their distance. Instead, Nepali hang out at divers for several hours.
"He started coming and was more curious, and was diving among our divers, and kept getting closer to the point where he was right next to them and they could see it very, very clearly," he said.
Johnston, who has been diving for more than 20 years, said he had never seen a beluga so close to the island.
While the students were happy to be in a close environment with the whale, Johnston said they did not pursue or persuade Nepi to stay with them.
"We were there doing our thing and he was there doing that," he said. "We just run our business and he continues to interfere."
Robert Michaud, scientific director of Quebec-based Mammal Marine Research and Education Group, said that it was worrying to see a young beluga friendly with people when away from home – especially when it was a repeat actor, such as Nepi.
The Michaud group first discovered the young whale in June 2017. After getting a call about a beluga held at the mouth of the Nepisiguit River in Bathurst, NB, the group coordinated the rescue involving its transfer to the river St. Lawrence in Quebec, near Cacouna.
Michaud said the rescue was a trial.
"The St. Lawrence beluga population is declining, they are endangered, so we wonder whether saving animals will help restore the population," he said. "It's not too far from home, it's decent, so we tried it."
The marine research group put a sign on Nepi so they could trace it, but the mischievous whale managed to lose it after about 20 days.
A year after he left the grid, Nepi was discovered by a wildlife photographer in Ingonish, South Carolina, and the researchers managed to identify the whale by looking at photographs.
Now the beluga has appeared once again on P.E.I., Michaud said he was confused as to why Nepi found the Maritimes so charming.
"This young whale would be much better off hanging out with other people of its own kind in the St. Lawrence area. This is why we moved it back to Cacouna," he said. "The question is why is he back again. What is the individual's temperament for being adventurous?"
When beluga is too close to boats and humans, Michaud said, it can often cause tragedy for declining species.
Michaud said, the Marine Mammal Research and Education Group heard many cases where a beluga was hit by a boat or hit by a propeller and killed, which is why it is dangerous to let them get too close and encourage them not to be afraid of people and their ships.
"We didn't see what was happening under our ship. So if we were fully aware, three dimensions around our ship, that might not be dangerous," Michaud explained. "But when the animals are not careful, when you move upside down with your boat, the accident happens. So we hope it won't happen with Nepi."
While most beluga live in the North Pole, their southernmost habitat is in the Estuary of St. Lawrence: critical habitat for beluga, which is protected under the Canadian Species at Risk Act.
In 2012, the St. Lawrence Estuary was home to around 900 beluga – although they said there might be as many as 10,000 beluga in the estuary before 1885.
Michaud asked that anyone who saw the beluga farther south than the estuary told the group so they could try to identify it, adding that while the wanderer by Nepi had a marine expert, he hoped the young whale would return home.
"They're amazing navigators, they have the best underwater radar you can imagine," he said. "P.E.I. is a little closer to St. Lawrence than Nova Scotia, so there is reason to hope. I crossed my fingers for him."