The family that named the Vancouver Aquarium's youngest beluga whale last year was broken-hearted after hearing she died on Monday.
"The whole family is devastated. We considered her a part of our family," said Katie Joyce on Tuesday.
Ms. Joyce, along with her husband, David, and their nine-year-old son, Devin, won a popular contest to name the baby whale after she was born amid fanfare to 20-year-old Aurora on June 7, 2009.
The family's entry, Nala – short for Nalautsaagaq in Inuktitut, the Inuit language – beat more than 3,000 other names. The moniker means "surprise."
"She will always be a special gift," said Ms. Joyce, who visited Nala monthly and cherishes memories of the whale.
The whale died suddenly in the aquarium's main beluga tank on Monday night after a two-week illness.
Aquarium veterinarian Martin Haulena said a post-mortem examination showed that the beluga developed a "bizarre" pocket off her airway that contained three foreign objects – two marble-sized rocks and a penny.
The pocket was inflamed and had obstructed the airway, leading to an accumulation of fluid in the whale's lungs.
Dr. Haulena said staff members are trying to determine whether the condition was congenital and are consulting with specialists around the world. He said the condition did not show up in the regular battery of diagnostic X-rays. "I am still racking my brain trying to figure out what we could have done about it," he said.
Rocks are a normal part of the whale's environment and are regularly consumed in captivity and in the wild, said Dr. Haulena.
"The penny is concerning and we have to figure out where that came from," he said.
Brian Sheehan, curator of marine mammals, said that most of the debris that ends up in the pool is dropped by birds, but sometimes things are dropped in by humans.
Signs and staff are positioned around the pool reminding visitors to keep objects out of the tank.
Ms. Joyce said she was upset when she heard that a penny and stones played a part in Nala's death and hopes it sends people a strong message.
"People, please be careful what you do around the aquariums," she said. "Please don't throw anything into the water with the belugas and the dolphins."
Aquarium staff are taking the loss hard, said Dr. Haulena, who was visibly choked up during a Tuesday press conference.
"You have an incredible symbol of vitality in our world and what we are trying to do to protect it and then she passes away on you.
"It's very, very hard," he said.
The loss has also impacted some of the other belugas at the aquarium. Nala's mother, Aurora, was swimming in the tank on Tuesday and calling out all morning, said Mr. Sheehan.
Tiqa, Nala's two-year-old playmate, was also more subdued than normal, he said.
It's not the first time a whale calf has died at the aquarium. Tuvaq – also born on site – died in 2005, three days shy of his third birthday.
Dr. Haulena said the deaths shouldn't reflect badly on the aquarium.
"We are one of the very best, if not the best, animal care teams in the world," he said, adding that Nala was under constant supervision and that there was a slim chance of catching the deformity.
Mr. Sheehan said the survival rate of other newborn marine mammals including killer whales and dolphins was between 40 and 50 per cent in the first year.