If you haven’t visited the beluga calf in more than a few weeks, you will be amazed at his progress. He’s more than 6 feet long and weighs about 400 pounds. In fact, he has traded his fetal folds for rolls of baby blubber. He’s big enough to actively play with Bella, 3½ (and the calf’s full sister), and (half-brother) Miki, 2½. He even barges in on their games. The other day, the trainers placed a huge knotted nautical rope in Secluded Bay for the whales to play with. Bella and Miki were doing headstands on the bottom as they jostled to grab the end of the rope in their mouths. The calf used his head, literally, to push the big rope away from both of them. Did I see him crack a smile?
Another sign that the calf has matured enough to be a part of everyday activities in the beluga group is that he’s been assigned a shape. You see the trainers use these hand-held shapes during training sessions and the show to call the belugas and dolphins to their stations. The calf already recognizes his dark gray arrow-shaped rectangle with a triangle at the end, and he readily swims to it and touches it. Last week he also began touching and following a target – a small buoy on a handle that an animal focuses on during training sessions. "Right now all of this is play, not formal training," says Ken Ramirez, executive vice president, animal programs and training. But when these early interactions with the trainers are fun, the transition to training will be easy for the calf. Many of his rewards are tactile, such as pats on the melon or gentle spritzes from a water bottle, and the calf absolutely loves to have his tongue tickled. Again, getting him accustomed to being touched sets the stage for him to participate in, and enjoy, his day-to-day wellness checks.
Another reward, sometimes handed out at the end of a play session, is a fish. He loves these slippery-slidey toys, and when he gets one, he immediately swims off to play with it for 20 to 30 minutes—which is why the trainers save this treat for last. "The fish has disappeared several times," says Ken, "so we believe he swallowed and ate it." At this point, the calf swallows fish unintentionally. But this is an introduction to solid food. While he’ll probably nurse for another year, sometime between his sixth and ninth month he will begin to think fish are pretty good to eat as well as play with.
The calf will make incredible strides in the next months—and he’ll get a name! Shedd Aquarium is delighted to partner with ABC 7 and the Daily Herald to present the online beluga calf naming opportunity. Visit the calf, look for his personality traits, and then vote for the name that you think fits him best. But hurry—you only have until June 6!
Posted by Karen Furnweger, web editor
See previous beluga calf updates