January 22, 2022

Young beluga whale shows no sign of heading home

PORTLAND – Whale experts hope that playful Poco, like most summer visitors to the Maine coast, will head for home.

But after spending the summer frolicking with boaters and divers, the young beluga whale shows no sign of exiting the region.

After being seen near the South Portland waterfront Oct. 10, he turned up four days later off Provincetown, Mass., and was spotted Monday off Gloucester, Mass.

Whale experts and federal and state officials who have been tracking Poco all summer want him to turn north toward his natural home in the Arctic waters off Canada.

The small white whale’s sojourn off New England, where he first appeared and attracted attention last spring, has left him with cuts and scars from boat propellers. But he still appears to be healthy and has not lost his dangerous attraction to boats and people, says Laura Ludwig of the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

“The risk is that he’ll get so used to humans he’ll eventually get hurt by them,” she said. “He’s already dinged up quite a bit. He’s got quite a few scars this summer. His left fluke is completely ripped up. People don’t try to hurt him. He just gets so curious, he’ll approach when he shouldn’t.”

A dead whale sighting Sunday near Long Island in Casco Bay set off alarms that it may have been Poco. Instead, it turned out to be a minke whale, a black whale far more common along the Maine coast.

Poco has become a folk hero to boaters and coastal residents, who trade stories about him acting like a big friendly dog or a mischievous circus performer.

Stories abound of Poco pushing around dinghies, squirting water into the faces of giggling children and rolling on his side to get belly-rubs from scuba divers.

Kurt Knudsen was diving with an oxygen tank last month in Freeport, cleaning tangled rope from a boat propeller, when Poco introduced himself.

“I felt a light pushing on my back,” Knudsen said. “I knew what it was as soon as I saw it, but the startle was incredible.”

Although Knudsen knew he should ignore Poco and not encourage the whale to approach people, he couldn’t help himself.

“I petted him a couple times, which you’re not supposed to do,” Knudsen said. “He’s like a dog.”

Others have found Poco irresistible, feeding him popcorn or part of a bologna sandwich or climbing into the water to play with him.

That kind of attention is what the experts want to avoid.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits such interaction with whales and seals in the wild because it can make them more vulnerable to boat propellers, fishing gear and other human threats. In this case, however, it’s clear that Poco is the one who most needs convincing.

“That’s the problem,” Ludwig said. “This beluga seeks people.”

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