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Nepi, seen here in a July 2018 handout photo near Ingonish, N.S., was spotted in Summerside, P.E.I., earlier this month.Levon Drover/Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals

As a professional scuba diver who led hundreds of tourists into the deep off Mexico’s Caribbean coast, Miguel Martinez was accustomed to the occasional encounter with sea creatures. Bull sharks would sometimes cruise by, assessing the humans with cold, dark eyes before moving on to easier prey.

As a trainee in commercial deep-sea diving in Summerside, PEI, Mr. Martinez came face-to-face in December with Nepi, a friendly, wandering adolescent beluga whale who has ventured far from his pod’s usual haunt in the St. Lawrence estuary, giving marine biologists serious concerns about his survival.

This playful animal was decidedly different from the sharks Mr. Martinez has encountered. Mr. Martinez came from Playa del Carmen, Mexico to Prince Edward Island to learn underwater inspection, welding and other construction techniques in colder, murkier waters at Holland College’s Marine Training Centre.

“The visibility was super bad, and all of a sudden I had these big eyes looking right through the glass of my helmet into my eyes,” said Mr. Martinez, 27. “He’s rubbing up against me looking for a belly scratch. Like a big sea puppy. In all my years diving, I’ve never seen anything like it. It was the best experience.”

St. Lawrence belugas are an endangered species, and Nepi’s exploring is putting him at serious risk. The four-year-old beluga, an early teen in whale terms, got stranded in the spring of 2017 up the Nepisiguit River in northern New Brunswick, where he was in danger of dying in shallow freshwater. (The river is where he got his name.)

A crew of marine biologists and others performed a risky rescue to get him back to his pod. They captured him in a net, slung him in a stretcher, padded him with an air mattress, and trucked him to Bathurst, N.B., where he was put on a flight to Rivière-du-Loup, Que., and released about 50 kilometres down the St. Lawrence River.

Robert Michaud, the scientific director of the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM), said he was uncertain Nepi would survive the stressful transfer. Once Nepi recovered, the marine biologist was confident the whale would rejoin his pod and carry on with normal life. Instead, he went on the run again.

In the summer of 2018, Nepi popped up in the company of an unidentified beluga friend in Ingonish, N.S., where he charmed Cape Bretoners and tourists by gazing into their eyes and doing the backstroke to invite human hands for a belly scratch.

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Beluga whales in Ingonish being assessed and sampled by MARS and Whale Stewardship Project.

In Prince Edward Island in December, he seemed to be swimming solo again. His current whereabouts are unknown. The waters around Summerside froze over the day after Nepi’s encounter with Mr. Martinez, and no one has reported any sightings since.

“He seems to have a bad habit of playing around with humans,” Mr. Michaud said. "He seems to have a hyper-sociable character that develops relationships outside his species. I’m still hoping he’ll grow out of it. Hanging out among the boats by the pier in Summerside is really not a good idea.”

Beluga whales are social animals who appear to latch on to human affection when they get the chance, but such attachment and curiosity can be deadly. Nepi already appears to carry scars from boat propellers, Mr. Martinez said. Mr. Michaud says researchers have seen belugas socialize with people and end up cut in half by a boat.

Beluga whales can also be friendly hosts. Three years ago, a narwhal from the far North, with its characteristic long single tusk, started hanging around with a St. Lawrence beluga pod. He has been with them ever since, leading biologists to wonder if he even might start mating within the pod some 1,000 kilometres southwest of usual narwhal territory. No narwhal-beluga hybrid has ever been confirmed, according to the GREMM.

This inter-species socialization among marine mammals is far healthier than mixing with humans, Mr. Michaud said. Canadian law dictates people must stay at least 100 metres away from marine mammals – 400 metres from belugas in the St. Lawrence – rules not always easy to follow with fast, sociable swimmers. “That really is what makes the situation difficult. The message we reinforce is that if you’re in the water and are approached by a beluga, leave it alone,” he said. “Get out of the water. Watch it from shore.”

Mr. Martinez and the PEI students did just that when Nepi showed up. “We took the divers out, he left. The divers went back in, he was back,” said their instructor, Kimball Johnston. “The guys were working on rigging and I think he was drawn by the noise. It’s something I’ve never seen before and probably won’t see again.”

The long-term outlook for Nepi remains uncertain.

“Every time I’ve made predictions with Nepi, I’ve been wrong,” Mr. Michaud said. “I didn’t think he’d survive his rescue and transport. He did. I thought he’d take up with the St. Lawrence belugas. He didn’t. I thought he’d stay with his beluga friend from Ingonish. He didn’t.

“I’ve been studying these animals for 35 years and they never cease to fascinate and surprise.”

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