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Miki (and sometimes Bella)

This page highlights the journey of beluga calves Miki and Bella. Click here to get the latest updates on Shedd's newest beluga calf.

SEPTEMBER 8, 2008: Ever wonder how we transport our precious cargo? Ken Ramirez, VP of animal collections and animal training at Shedd, gives us an inside look on the journey to Mystic.

AUGUST 28, 2008: Miki, 1, and Bella, 2, will be among the youngest whales ever transported. Moving cetaceans between aquariums by jet is an established, safe procedure, and Shedd is quite experienced at it. In fact, the two calves, along with Kayavak, 9, will be the only first-time flyers among our marine mammals. Because they are young, however, we thought it would be helpful to get them used to the various aspects of transport before they made the actual trip. We’ve done this before with animals that have never been moved. Transport involves guiding an animal into a padded stretcher, custom-made with openings for its flippers. Then the stretcher is suspended in a large, water-filled transport container with an open top, which allows trainers to monitor and have contact with the animal throughout the move. We began in February by guiding Bella and Mom Puiji into separate stretchers, just as we’ll do when they travel side by side. We repeated the process with Miki and Mauyak. Both moms are old hands at moving in and out of the stretchers, for transports and for some wellness-exam procedures. Their calm cooperation with the trainers set a reassuring example for the calves. We have transport practice once a month, each time increasing the amount of time the calves spend in the stretcher, from 15 minutes the first time up to a full hour now. We also simulate the kinds of activity the calves will experience during the real thing. Both young whales are at a satisfactory comfort level with the process. In reality, we could travel without these precautions, but they give us a little extra peace of mind.


Mom Mauyak contributes to Miki's birthday splash.

AUGUST 21, 2008: During an otherwise leisurely, uneventful summer, Miki marked the last major milestone in the development of a beluga calf. On Aug. 16, he celebrated his first birthday by playing with a cake topped with herring. We suspect he’s the type that eats the frosting and leaves the cake. Mom Mauyak did the actual job of extinguishing the significant single candle, beluga style, with a mouthful of water, which pretty much did in the cake anyway. Oceanarium guests who were present during the festivities were treated to pieces of two whale-sized sheet cakes of more conventional ingredients — chocolate, vanilla and strawberries — while the Radio Disney Road Crew stopped by to lead singing and dancing. Of course, it wouldn’t be a birthday without a few hundred people singing that song and signing a card for the little whale, too. BTW, “Miki” means “little” in the language of Native Alaskans. But with whales, size is totally relative. Miki weighed 100 pounds and was about 5½ feet long at birth. Now he’s 7 feet long and weighs nearly 450 pounds. He could tip the scales (really sturdy scales) at a ton by the time he’s fully grown. We’ll have more updates before then! In fact, during the Oceanarium renovation, you’ll be able to follow his progress at another facility on our new interactive section. And Miki, along with his mom and the other belugas, will be back at Shedd in time for his second birthday! Miki’s first birthday celebration was sponsored by CIT.


Miki, left, and Bella, right , swimming behind Puiji

JULY 10, 2008: Bella, who is 7½ feet long and weighs more than 600 pounds, turns 2 on July 17. And Miki, now 7 feet long and about 450 pounds, reaches that ultimate big milestone in a beluga calf’s life — his first birthday — on Saturday, Aug. 16. You’ll want to visit Miki that day. The Radio Disney Road Crew will be on hand between 11 and noon with games and singalongs (count on “Happy Birthday”), and we’ll have special beluga chats scheduled throughout the day. Miki’s birthday celebration is sponsored by CIT.

Both calves are also getting ready for their trip to another zoological facility during the renovation of the Oceanarium. Miki, Bella and Kayavak, who turns 9 on Aug. 3, will be the only first-time flyers among our marine mammals. And the calves will be among the youngest whales ever transported. So since February, Miki and Bella have been practicing the transport procedure once a month with their moms. The trainers are also simulating the kind of activity that the calves will experience during the transport. With their moms setting a calm example during these practice sessions, the calves are coming along swimmingly in the preparations for the move.

DECEMBER 21: The big news is that Mauyak’s calf has a short and sweet name — Miki (MEE-kee). It means “little” in the Inuit language. The winning selection in the Name the Baby Beluga contest was announced by NBC5 Today cohost Zoraida Sambolin during a live broadcast from Shedd between 6 and 7 a.m.

Miki, mom Mauyak, “auntie” Naya, year-old Bella and her mom, Puiji, casually cruised around Secluded Bay throughout the show. One of the belugas piped in with high-pitched chirps several times.

The calf, who is a little more than 4 months old, is estimated to be about 6 feet long and weigh more than 220 pounds. “Considering his current size,” says Ken Ramirez, vice president of animal collections and training, “ ‘Miki’ is a fitting Inuit name for our smallest whale.” Of course, by the time the little male is fully grown, he could easily equal or surpass his father’s size of 13 feet and 1,800 pounds. “I’m sure we all know someone of large stature whose nickname is ‘Tiny,’ ” Ken continues, “so it will be fun to watch Miki grow to his adult size and weight.” Miki is scheduled for his first official physical next month.

Since we last checked in with an update, Miki has been introduced to all the belugas except his father, Naluark. (Beyond their biological input, male belugas have no family ties with their offspring.) Miki’s most recent introduction was to Puiji and Bella. He was very curious about Bella, the other calf on the block. Although they had seen each other through partitions between pools, and Bella probably observed the birth, she wasn’t too sure what to make of Miki when she was in the same pool with him. On their first meeting, she swam away from him, which he thought was an invitation to play “keep away.” The faster he swam to catch up with her, the faster Bella went to get away. While they have played a little, Bella is still uncomfortable with him.

More than 8,000 people took part in the two-phase on-line naming contest. “Miki” was a write-in name that made the cut to the semifinal five and clearly appealed the most to voters. It was submitted by Keelin Swalve, a Chicagoan currently teaching in Barcelona, Spain. Keelin wins a one-year family membership to Shedd and a Trainer for a Day family experience. A second winner, Liliana Orozco, was selected from participants who entered the Nombra al Bebé Beluga contest through Telemundo Chicago, NBC5’s Spanish-language affiliate. Liliana will also receive a family membership and Trainer for a Day package.

Many thanks to NBC5 Chicago, Telemundo Chicago and the Sun-Times, and to everyone who helped to name our baby beluga.

OCTOBER 4: Mauyak's calf is clearly the star of the Oceanarium! Now that he's on view, and you can see for yourself how he's growing and developing, we'll give you occasional updates. In the coming week, his social network will expand with the introduction of another beluga, most likely 8-year-old Kayavak.


SEPTEMBER 28: For the last six weeks, the only people with “calf privileges” were the staff members caring for the little beluga. But that changes tomorrow when we reopen the underwater viewing area of Secluded Bay and YOU can visit Mauyak’s calf in person! He’s still sloughing skin, so he might look a little rough around the edges, but it’s just a sign of how much he’s grown in a month and a half. Be sure to spend some time so that you can watch him interact with Mom and Naya and maybe see him nurse or even play with beluga-style toys. And visit often to enjoy the privilege we all have of watching a baby beluga whale grow up at Shedd.


SEPTEMBER 20: Can you outgrow your birthday suit? Yes, if you’re a baby whale. Mauyak’s calf is growing so fast that he’s just about popping out of his skin, which is sloughing off in big patches after five weeks of use. It must feel itchy because the calf is rubbing against the underwater rock formations, the floor, even Mom and Naya to be rid of it. Last year, when Bella was going through the same thing (at 9 weeks), Naya helped her by grabbing ragged edges of skin and pulling off strips — to play with! Naya also took on the role of wet nurse with Bella, and she’s doing it again, producing milk and helping to suckle Mauyak’s calf. The little whale must feel pretty secure with Mom and an “auntie” looking after him — he finally ventured into a new habitat this week. Now he’ll willingly follow either Mauyak or Naya into Misty Passage. Ken will give him a chance to explore the medical pool in the coming week. The calf has also discovered how to play — after Mauyak decided to share her toys! One of her favorite playthings is a floating hoop that she pushes around with her ample forehead, or melon — kind of wearing like a tiara. Always a mimic, the calf wanted to try it, but Mauyak wouldn’t let him for several days. (To be fair, she certainly needs recreation.) When the calf finally did get to push the hoop around, he discovered that it was too big for his head. The trainers were in stitches watching playtime play out. But it’s a great way for the calf to hone his eye/head coordination.


From top, Naya, the calf and Mauyak

SEPTEMBER 13: After three weeks of pondering the gender of Mauyak's calf, the speculation is over. Thanks to advanced technology (and a little old-fashioned observation) by Shedd’s animal-care experts, the results are in: IT'S A BOY! What took so long to find out? We didn't want to handle the calf if we didn't have to. Ken says, “During the first several months, the bond that develops between mother and calf are critical to the long-term success of the calf. By having the ability to perform a 'hands-off' test of Mauyak’s placenta, our team was able to determine the calf’s gender without unnecessarily disrupting bond development, nursing and other milestones.” Shedd’s animal-health staff worked closely with Jean Dubach, Ph.D., at Brookfield Zoo's genetics lab. A sample of placenta, which contains the calf's DNA, was collected soon after the birth and sent to Brookfield to be tested for genetic material that would be present with the Y chromosome. It was a process of elimination, since only a male would have positive results from that test: Females have two X chromosomes and males have one X and one Y chromosome. The test was a first for Shedd’s beluga whales. Dr. Caryn P. Poll, Shedd's section chief of animal health, says, “It’s been very exciting for our team to use the latest technology to confirm the gender of the calf through DNA testing. This cutting-edge scientific method is another move forward in the continually advancing technology we use for our animal care." The test confirmed what many, including Ken, suspected all along. (We don't know if any wagers were made, but speculation on this kind of thing is always lively.) Ken explains that beluga whales have internal sex organs, and both sexes have visible teats, which often makes it more difficult to determine the gender of a calf without physically examining the animal. But, he adds, male calves often "dislpay" early on, and about the same time the test results came back, Ken had visual proof as well.


Mauyak keeps an eye on the baby.

SEPTEMBER 6: Mauyak's calf is 3 weeks old and just zooming along. The marine mammals trainers have begun putting toys in the nursery pool. Getting used to new objects — and learning to play! — are all milestones in the calf's development. The toys selected are large, simple and calf-safe: basketballs, a 24-inch soccer ball, and a huge knotted rope that hangs in the water from a buoy. It's fun watching the calf react and then cautiously interact as something new is introduced every two or three days. At first the little whale was wary of these strange invaders. But after observing Mom push a basketball around with her head, the calf tried it too. And it was fun! The calf has also gotten comfortable with Naya, our 18-year-old female beluga. Naya has been in Secluded Bay with Mom and the calf since last Friday. At first Mauyak, who is a fairly dominant female, was very protective of the calf, but now she's okay with it swimming with Naya. Meanwhile Naya, who is an agreeable, submissive animal, has not made any overtures to help care for the calf. In the beluga social world, the communications are subtle, so we'll watch for some careful initiative by Naya and a response from Mauyak. And you watch for some big news about the calf next week!


Compare this photo with the one at the bottom of the page to see how Mauyak's calf is starting to fill out.

AUGUST 31: Mauyak's calf passed the two-week mark yesterday! The word from Ken is that those fetal folds in the calf's sides are starting to fill out as the little whale puts on weight — probably 20 to 30 pounds so far. The calf's energy is good, and so is Mauyak's again. This week the trainers opened the gate between Secluded Bay, where Mom and calf are, and adjoining Misty Passage — one of Mauyak's favorite pools — to try to broaden the calf's horizons. Whales' instincts tell them not to swim into tunnels or caves where they might not be able to surface for air, so despite its strong bond with Mom, the calf wouldn't follow her in, and she wouldn't leave the calf behind. That's a milestone that will have to wait. Another big event in the calf's life took place today when Naya, an 18-year-old female beluga, joined it and Mauyak in Secluded Bay. This is the calf's first introduction to one of our other belugas. Initially the calf was sticking close to Mom, unsure about the stranger. But Naya is the perfect whale to help the calf integrate into Shedd's beluga social group — and help Mauyak, too. Naya has been nanny to Shedd's three previous calves — Kayavak, Qannik and Bella. Ken hopes that this gentle, attentive and responsible whale will help care for the new baby, too.


AUGUST 27: The wave of violent weather that caused so much destruction in the Chicago area last week didn't interrupt operations at Shedd, but Mauyak and her calf sure noticed the lightning and thunder. Throughout the storms Wednesday and Thursday, Mom and calf were inseparable. With calmer weather, the calf is more independent again. Ken reports that the little whale is absorbed in practicing moves it has seen Mom do, including spyhopping and swimming upside down. The results are kind of comical as the calf works on its coordination. It's also learning clicks, chirps and other vocalizations from Mom.


AUGUST 23: Mauyak’s calf is a week old and going strong! Many moms will identify with how tired Mauyak can get taking care of a new baby. To produce enough high-fat milk for the calf, she’s eating about 70 pounds of food a day — double her normal diet. She’s an attentive mom, too, and even though she knows the trainers well, she gets a little excited when a lot of people are in Secluded Bay. That’s why the area is closed to the public, and that’s why we’re waiting awhile before taking new photos (today’s photo is from Aug. 16). While Mauyak takes rest breaks, the calf explores its new environment — still under Mom's ever-watchful eye. Animal-care staffers who are observing the pair around the clock and keeping a minute-by-minute record of their activities note that the little beluga is energetic, that he’s nursing a lot and that he’s processing his food well. (Yep, there’s a poop checkoff on their data sheets.)


AUGUST 20: Ken reports that Mauyak's calf continues to the amaze and delight with his or her progress. (We probably won't know the gender until the calf has its first wellness exam, and right now, as long as the calf is healthy, we don't want to interrupt the mother-calf relationship.) The calf appears to be getting more efficient at nursing. To let Mom know it's feeding time, the calf nudges her underside, which stimulates milk production. The calf is nursing a total of 40 to 50 minutes a day, which Ken says is a really good amount. The next milestone we'll be looking for is visible weight gain.


AUGUST 16: The first milestone for the calf was an uncomplicated birth. In fact, Ken suspects that Mauyak set a speed record with her 75-minute labor. Marine mammals staffers, roused from their sleep, barely arrived at the aquarium in time for the birth. But Mauyak knew what to do, and the trainers had little more to do than carefully monitor the event. The calf literally popped to the surface for its first breath, the second milestone.


The third milestone for the calf was to bond with Mauyak, and it began swimming with her right away. This is Mauyak's sixth calf, and her great mothering experience shows. She maintains almost constant contact with the baby, and, for a big animal with no hands, she is agile and adept at guiding the calf away from habitat walls and rockwork.


The newborn calf has wrinkles, called fetal folds, from being scrunched up inside Mom. These folds will fill out as the calf starts to put on weight. The fourth milestone — and the real cliff-hanger for staff members — is nursing, which ideally should start within 24 hours of birth. Mom's first milk is loaded with antibodies — along with a lot of fat and protein — to protect the baby from infection. Within 15 minutes, this precocious little whale was mouthing Mom's sides, searching for her mammary glands (near the tail), while Mauyak was turning this way and that to help direct the calf. At about 9 hours old, the calf found the milk bar and has been making frequent and long visits ever since. Ken notes that while a lot of things can happen at this early stage, he's impressed with the calf's progress. This photo also shows a remnant of the calf's umbilical cord, which will drop off in a week or two.


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