The Vancouver Aquarium’s youngest and beloved beluga calf Nala died suddenly at 10:15 p.m. on Monday of a bizarre complication from a respiratory infection brought on by two rocks and a penny.

“A strange finding, one I certainly did not suspect,” said a solemn Dr. Martin Haulena, staff veterinarian at the aquarium. “One that unfortunately, even in hindsight — although we could have probably diagnosed by X-ray — I’m still racking my brain to try and figure out what we could’ve done about it.”

Results from the post-mortem examination revealed that one-year-old Nala had an unusual growth or “pocket” off her airway containing three items — two marble-sized rocks and a penny.

Haulena explained that while small debris getting “inhaled” is quite normal — as young whales often like to play with found objects even in the wild — they are usually just cleared out of the blowhole.

However, the objects remained trapped in Nala’s unknown “pocket,” causing infection and swelling, which lead to an obstruction to the airway and accumulation of fluid in her lungs, ultimately causing her death.

Nala was born last June to Aurora.

“Very sad, very tragic, and a very long night. A very upsetting day for us here at Vancouver Aquarium,” said Haulena.

Nala had a bout of illness for about two weeks and was receiving antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medication and fluids.

Haulena said she was responding well and he was very happy with her progress until she took a turn for the worse on Monday.

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