July 30, 2016 - 6:00 AM
ADMIRAL'S BEACH, N.L. - A young beluga whale appears to have taken a liking to a small Newfoundland village, where some residents have made of habit of patting its head and rubbing its belly.
The eight-foot-long whale showed up at the wharf in Admiral's Beach about four months ago, and experts are now raising concerns about its safety.
The playful, white whale has been spotted huddling next to a small speedboat, following fishing vessels, tugging on mooring lines with its mouth and appearing in YouTube videos.
Local resident Sharon McEvoy says the whale has grown since it arrived in March, and she says locals are regularly reaching out to touch the animal.
Some are calling him Billy.
"We're getting a lot of people from a lot of places coming to look at him now," she said in an interview Friday from the Butland's convenience store, where she was working the afternoon shift.
"They get down in the speedboats and the beluga whale comes over and they rubs his belly ... and the top of his head. He just lays there and lets them pet him ... He'll come right to you."
Scientists say once belugas become accustomed to human interaction, there's a high risk of serious injury or death for the whale.
Tim Frasier, a biologist at St. Mary's University in Halifax, says it's not unusual for young belugas to explore on their own.
"Every year or so we get what we call wandering belugas," the associate professor said. "We don't necessarily think that they're lost ... (This one) is probably just exploring, the way that teenagers do."
Frasier, who studies in marine mammal behaviour, said the whale should be left alone for its own safety.
"It's the same thing with any wild animal; giving them their space and leaving them alone is always the right thing to do," he said.
"There's a real misconception about whales and especially belugas. They're cute, we sing songs about them, we see them in aquariums and we get used to seeing people touch them. But none of that is natural. And that's not what our default behaviour should be with them."
Frasier said it's unfortunate, but encouraging the whale to move on simply won't work.
McEvoy said she and other residents are worried the whale could be injured.
"I don't want him to get hurt. There's fishing boats coming in and out of there. The longer he's staying here, the more likely that he's not going to leave."
Belugas are toothed whales known for their muscular bodies, curious dispositions and distinctive, upturned mouths that make them look like they are smiling. Male belugas can grow as long as 15 feet and females to 12 feet.
They are regular visitors to the waters off Newfoundland and Labrador, where their interactions with people sometimes spark controversy.
Last September, the federal Fisheries Department posted signs in the Grates Cove area after receiving reports that people in the area were trying to lasso and ride a beluga.
In 2002, a beluga that had become used to people in the Calvert area of eastern Newfoundland was killed when it was hit by a boat propeller.
And then there's the sad story of Luna the killer whale, which was found alone in the waters near Gold River, along Vancouver Island's northern coast. Separated from his pod, he became a fixture at the community dock, where he was regularly petted by locals.
A plan to have him moved was thwarted by the local aboriginal band, who said the whale embodied the spirit of their dead chief.
Luna was killed in March 2006 when he was sucked into the propeller of a tugboat.
— By Michael MacDonald in Halifax
News from © The Canadian Press, 2016