A beluga whale pokes its head above water

The beluga whale is normally associated with sea ice in the Arctic rather than the rivers of France. Image © Rainer Plendl/Shutterstock

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Concerns grow for beluga whale swimming in France's River Seine

A beluga whale has been spotted heading towards Paris, thousands of miles from its natural habitat.

The public are being warned to keep away from the whale to give it the best chance of returning home.

Update: Unfortunately, during a rescue attempt, the whale's condition deteriorated and it was euthanised to prevent any further suffering. 

Concerns have been raised after one of the most southerly sightings of a beluga whale in history.

The whale has been observed swimming up the River Seine in Vernon, France at a distance of over 100 kilometres inland. It is the second time in recent years this species has been spotted in a European river, following Benny the beluga which entered the Thames in 2018.

While Benny eventually swam out of the river, scientists and conservationists are concerned that the French whale may be too weak to leave.

A spokesperson for the marine campaign group Sea Shepherd France says, 'It is urgent that we find the whale, and it will probably be necessary to help it feed and to go back to the sea. We can maximise its chances of survival through effective teamwork between everyone concerned.'

'To all those who care about the fate of the beluga: keeping your distance is essential. Help us to help it by respecting these instructions, as the health of the animal should prevail over your curiosity.'

The arrival of the beluga whale follows an orca, named Sedna, which died in the river earlier this year. The killer whale had a bullet lodged in its skull, which has been suggested as having weakened it before it died in the Seine.


Are Arctic animals common in Europe?

Beluga whales normally live in the waters of the Arctic, where they have adapted to live under the sea ice. Their white colour camouflages them from predators, while they have lost their dorsal fin to allow them to swim closer to the ice and minimise heat loss.

While they are relatively slow swimmers compared to their relatives, they are sometimes seen away from the Arctic circle. Between the 18th century and the 1930s, there were around 10 sightings of the whales in British waters, and in more recent years they have been seen around Northumberland, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The most recent sighting, in 2018, was the most southerly ever recorded in the UK when Benny the beluga was spotted at Gravesend in Kent. While he swam further up the Thames in search of food, he never made it to London, and instead returned to the ocean during 2019.

Other Arctic animals have also been spotted in and around northern Europe in recent years. Wally the walrus was spotted multiple times around the UK, Ireland, France and Spain in 2021, as was another of his species, Freya, who was spotted in the UK and the Netherlands.

While it's too soon to say if the increase in Arctic wildlife in Europe's waters is part of a growing trend, an increase in melting ice, the movement of prey and stormy weather have all been linked to changes in the distribution of these animals.

The old mill of Vernon sitting on the remains of a collapsed bridge on the banks of the Seine

The whale has reached Vernon in France, which is around 70 kilometres from Paris. Image © niniferrari/Shutterstock

Will the beluga whale survive?

Unfortunately, it's difficult to know whether the beluga whale will survive. Getting close enough to assess its health could stress the whale and put it a greater risk of stranding and death.

The whale may already be unwell, with the BBC reporting that French officials are concerned the beluga could be underweight. Meanwhile, previous studies of beluga whales stranded in Canada found that a significant number had suffered from the impact of pollution and disease.

Further studies of these beluga have found injuries that could be related to stress, which, as Richard Sabin explains, can affect how a whale's body works.

'Most cetacean species are adapted to life in a marine environment, and the beluga whale in the Seine is no exception,' the Museum's principal mammals curator explains. 'Though belugas can be found in estuaries around the Arctic circle where saltwater and freshwater mix, they can become stressed if they spend too long in freshwater.'

'Over time, elevated levels of stress hormones can impact a whale's growth, fertility and immune system function.'

If the whale is struggling, this may make it difficult for it to return to the Arctic circle. However, as beluga whales are generalists who can eat fish, crustaceans, squid and worms, it may be able to find enough food to eat and build up its strength.

For now, officials and conservation groups will continue to monitor the whale's health, and plan how best to support its return to the ocean.