When I was a kid, my dad took me to the aquarium to see beluga whales. I was instantly enamored with their glistening silvery-white bodies, loud vocalizations and charming social behaviors.
It’s been about thirty years since that day, but last weekend I finally had the chance to get closer to white whales. Along with Nat Geo employee Leslee, I traveled to Sea World in Orlando, Florida to interact with captive-bred beluga whales.
Because wild belugas live in Arctic and sub-Arctic waters, it can be difficult to study them in their native range. Depending on the season and the belugas’ migratory route, many areas with widespread ice cover and extreme weather conditions are inaccessible to ships and aircraft.
At present, climate change, vessel and industrial noise, loss of ice and prey distribution, ship strikes, toxin exposure and hunting threaten wild beluga populations. White whales are currently listed as ‘near threatened’ by the IUCN Red List.
The scientific name for the beluga whale, Delphinapterus leucas, means “white dolphin without wings.” This toothed whale species lacks a dorsal fin, which enables them to swim beneath ice sheets and locate breathing holes. Belugas have a very round, prominent ‘melon’ just in front of the blowhole. It’s a flexible structure – composed of lipids (fats) – that most likely facilitates sound production, helping them find food and other belugas. These melons feel spongy to the touch, and they jiggle and shift when the beluga produces a sound. Belugas also have a flexible neck that allows them to turn their head in all directions. They have one blowhole.
Our interactive experience with beluga whales began at Sea World’s Wild Arctic park attraction. Our guide, Lindsey, walked us through what to expect and some whale interaction ground rules, like never touching the whale without permission, minimizing the use of our hands, and listening to the beluga trainer at all times. We were outfitted with wetsuits and ready to go.
“How cold is the water?” Leslee asked, already anticipating the painfully cold plunge. “Fifty-five degrees,” said Lindsey. “Oh, and the whales are very playful… They might splash you.” So we mentally prepared ourselves for cold splashing and conversation with restrained hand gestures.
Beluga Whale Trainer Nick accompanied us at all times while in the white whale exhibit. We interacted with two unrelated young, captive-bred belugas – Klondike, an eight-year old male, and Maple, a five-year old female. These whales came to Sea World Orlando from Marineland Canada. Because Klondike and Maple are still youngsters, their coloring hints of grey and has yet to pale to a creamy white (a characteristic hue of older belugas).
As soon as we entered the beluga exhibit, the whales were a chatter with their varied language of clicks, squeaks, whistles, wails, honks, shrieks and clangs (some people call belugas sea canaries). Belugas produce sounds to both communicate and locate food and other whales. White whales are extremely social creatures, living in groups called pods. They will often chase one another or rub against another’s body, as we witnessed during our time at Sea World. They’re a curious species; in the wild, belugas have been known to swim up to boats.
At the start of the enrichment exercise, we met the belugas individually. Hey, it’s cool to be wild about whales...
Then we sat down on a submerged platform, and Nick orchestrated the training session. We were introduced to the whales individually, with Nick rotating them periodically between the other trainers. During the interaction experience, Nick kept a whistle between his lips and a bucket full of fish under his arm.
Sea World’s childlike whales seemed eager to perform for us, interpreting hand gestures and fulfilling several training commands, such as sound-making, spins, lifts and splashes. While the whales ultimately made the choice whether or not to follow a command, a positive reinforcement (fish) was rewarded immediately after each correct behavior. Lindsey’s prep comments proved correct, as the whales frequently splashed us…
In the video footage below, get a glimpse of what it was like to get closer to beluga whales…
Beluga whales are one of the smallest species of whale. They don’t reach full size until about ten years of age – males can average up to fifteen feet in length and weigh over 3,000 pounds. Their average life span in the wild is 35 to 50 years.
Want to learn more about beluga whales? Check out this National Geographic video below and get a unique view of a wild pod of white whales:Want to GET CLOSER to more animals? Check out my other wildlife expedition blog posts! Go on a nighttime river safari, track wild elephants in Borneo, study an aggregation of migrating whale sharks, trek through the rainforest in search of orangutans, tour a giant, cockroach-infested cave, swim in an aquarium with seven shark species, and photograph manta rays from a tiny research plane!
Photo Credits: Carol Razgaitis and Sea World
Video Credit: Richard Razgaitis