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

PARIS — Emergency services in France are facing a race against time to save a beluga whale that has swum up the Seine River and is heading south toward Paris.

“It’s definitely confusing,” Emmanuel Pasco-Viel, the operations coordinator for Normandy’s l’Eure prefecture, told NBC News on Thursday.

The beluga, an endangered species better suited to frozen Arctic and sub-Arctic waters, was spotted for the first time on Tuesday, said Pasco-Viel, who is in charge of monitoring it.

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

“We had a helicopter fly over the water to help us locate the beluga,” he said. “They even use drones. We will decide what is the best way to help the beluga and how to guide it back to the sea.”

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

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

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

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

He 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 out to sea from the Seine, his chances of survival are slim,” he said, adding that scientists will try to take DNA samples to find out where the whale came from — possibly Canada, Norway or Russia. Once that was established, he said he hoped he could be flown home.

Recognized by their white skin and bulbous heads, beluga whales are typically 13 to 20 feet long, according to the U.S. National Oceanic Service, which also notes that they are social and friendly creatures that typically travel in pods. However, loners sometimes venture further south and can temporarily survive in fresh water.

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 an absolute mystery how it got there,” said Liz Sandeman, co-founder of Marine Connection, a British marine wildlife conservation group that helps provide information to French authorities.

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

“This beluga whale is a long way from home,” he said. “It’s going to be dehydrated, not really nourished, and it’s too southern.”

He added that there was “another lone 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 French rivers” in the past three months.

In May, an orca died in the Seine after efforts to lure it back into the ocean using a drone emitting whale sounds failed. He was later diagnosed with mucositis, a fungal disease that starts in the skin before attacking vital organs.

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

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

“With melting ice, animals can access locations they could previously only reach once or twice a year. Now the animals are looking for new locations and waters further afield. Migration patterns are changing. Climate change is not everything, but it is certainly having an effect,” he said.

Nancy Ing reported from Paris and Leila Sackur from London.

Associated Press contributed.

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