“Baby Beluga in the deep blue sea/ Swim so wild and you swim so free/ Heaven above and the sea below/ And a little white whale on the go/ Baby Beluga, Baby Beluga/ Is the water warm?/ Is your mama home with you, so happy…”
The first time I heard “Baby Beluga,” it was being sung by my daughter’s kindergarten class. If my heart were ice, it would’ve melted like an igloo in Africa on the spot. But, for me, the song will forever be associated with the Georgia Aquarium, and the first time I took her there when she was six: The minute we saw their massive Beluga Whale exhibit (one of just 6 in the world) we started singing the song together and giggling, delighted to see such majestic creatures up close.
A few months ago I heard that they’d launched a new Beluga & Friends Interactive Program, so I immediately contacted them to set up a visit. And so it was that, a few weeks before Christmas, Mary and I found ourselves strapping on wetsuits and taken on a behind-the-scenes tour of the world’s largest aquarium, with 8 million gallons of marine and fresh water tanks.
We learned a lot about the parts of the facility that most visitors never see, including their conservation efforts on behalf of dolphins in Florida, whale sharks in Mexico, and penguins in South Africa. We got to see their veterinary services areas, as well as the massive hydraulic lifts they use to get larger animals in and out of the exhibits. We even got to check out the commissary, to see how they carefully inspect every single fish their animals are given, ensuring sushi-quality servings for everyone from the playful otters to the dolphins and sharks.
We were then led to a classroom, where we learned a bit more about the Beluga, which is also known as the sea canary due to its distinctive high-pitched squeaks, squeals and whistles. With an average length of 12-13 feet and a range that stretches throughout the Arctic from Alaska and Canada to Greenland and Russia, belugas are considered a “near-threatened” species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, with a global population of around 100,000. However, the subpopulation of Alaska’s Cook Inlet is considered critically endangered and is protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
By this point we were beyond eager to get into the water, so after going over a few basic instructions we were led onto a waist-high platform in the holding tank, where the water is kept around a brisk 55º. The Aquarium ensures a 4:1 guest-trainer ratio, giving you an opportunity feel like a trainer for the day. Recently, they discovered their adult female beluga was pregnant as a result of their captive breeding program, but we didn’t get a chance to meet here on the day we visited.
Once we got situated along the wall, the trainer blew her whistle to call over our first fine-flippered friend, Qinu. Qinu is a young male calf, and therefore had the light grey color of a dolphin rather than the pure white for which adult belugas were named (beluga is a derivation of the Russian word for “white”). We each introduced ourselves to Qinu with the traditional whale greeting, i.e. throwing a tasty fish into his eagerly opened mouth. If he had been a puppy, I’m fairly certain his tail would’ve been wagging like crazy. In return, he allowed us to rub his melon, the bulbous lump of fatty tissue in the center of his forehead.
After that we met the star of the show, Beethoven, a massive male with a serious playful streak. We learned the different commands trainers use to get the whales to perform tricks ranging from making blowhole fart noises to spitting water in the faces of his unsuspecting victi… er, guests. He also allowed us to feel his squishy smooth skin, stroking him extensively and carefully feeling the finger-like skeletal structure in his fluke. In addition to the aforementioned gifts of fresh fish as a reward, Beethoven seemed to love having his tongue patted for some strange reason, which proved an oddly endearing trait.
Before we knew it, our time with the belugas was over and we bid them farewell, throwing in several pool toys used to enrich their experience. But our disappointment was interrupted by more oohs and aahs as the trainers led us to the adjacent tank, where a crew of cute spotted harbor seals came slipping and sliding out to meet us like a cadre of Cirque du Soleil clowns. I’m sure the trainer conveyed tons of great facts about these cuddly creatures in the process, but I was too infatuated with an adorable gal named Rose (what can I say, they reminded me of the beloved Galapagos Sea Lions!) to absorb it.
In the end, we learned that you don’t have to venture very far from home in order to have an amazing animal encounter. We learned a lot about beluga whales during our Beluga & Friends experience, and getting to know the sweetly playful personalities of Qinu and Beethoven made us want to fight even harder to protect them and other whales from the dangers they face. The two-hour program (which runs twice a day) may be a bit pricey at $225 a person, but it produced memories we will cherish for the rest of our lives. –by Bret Love; photos provided courtesy of Georgia Aquarium
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