Beluga whale death: Georgia Aquarium officials say Maris suddenly fell ill

By Aaron Gould Sheinin

Georgia Aquarium officials on Saturday said Maris the beluga whale was behaving normally before becoming acutely ill shortly after lunch on Thursday and was dead soon after that.

Maris, housed at the downtown Atlanta aquarium since 2005, died Thursday afternoon at 1:52 p.m., Eric Gaglione, the aquarium’s director of zoological operations, said. Aquarium officials said they do not yet know the cause of death and that the results of a necropsy will not be available for four to six weeks.

Beluga whale Maris died Thursday afternoon at the Georgia Aquarium. (Credit: Georgia Aquarium)

Beluga whale Maris died Thursday afternoon at the Georgia Aquarium. (Credit: Georgia Aquarium)

It started as a normal day, Gaglione said. Staff made their morning checks of all the aquarium’s animals and Maris was “bright, alert, responsive, eating, looked great. We didn’t notice anything odd. In fact, leading up to the lunch-time hours, she was playing and eating with the other animals.”

That soon changed, he said.

“She looked a little odd,” Gaglione said. Her trainers attempted to engage her, but she did not respond. Maris drifted to the bottom of her tank, which she shared with two other belugas. She eventually surfaced and rolled over. Aquarium zoological staff rallied to her side at about 1 p.m. Fourteen people were in the water holding her while veterinarians examined her.

Moved to a medical pool, Maris did not respond to emergency therapies.

Senior vice president and chief veterinary officer Greg Bossart said when he arrived at the whale exhibit, Maris was not breathing, although she had a heart beat. Nothing they tried revived her, he said.

The Georgia Aquarium has lost three beluga whales in the last three years. Two were infants, the offspring of matriarch Maris. They failed to thrive. On Thursday, Maris herself died.

Mike Leven, the aquarium’s chairman and CEO, said many questions remain.

“A lot of people here are feeling very, very deeply about the loss,” Leven said. “We work with these animals each and every day and they truly become parts of us. They are part of our success and we are part of theirs.”

The two remaining belugas, Grayson and Qinu, have adjusted to Maris being gone.

“The whales themselves are dealing with a new reality, a new dynamic in their own environment,” he said.

Gaglione said Grayson and Qinu at first “appeared a little anxious. Their behavior changed — they were swimming more rapidly. Those two animals settled down nicely. We take the time to thoroughly evaluate the remaining animals and make sure there’s no issues with them.”