It’s official: On Bella’s eighth birthday, Maris Muzzy, senior trainer and cetacean manager, says that the beluga is “truly an adult whale now, not the lanky young adult she was last year.”

Beluga with trainerThe stats bear it out. For Bella’s seventh birthday, Maris reported that the whale was 10 feet 4 inches long and weighed 900 pounds. This year, she’s the same length, but she’s filled out to 1,150 pounds. Bella remains gray enough, however, to be identified by the white spot on her right side.

Be sure to look for her on your next Shedd visit! If you want, you can even send her a little gift from our Amazon wish list, which features some of her favorite toys.

Bella spends a lot of time with her half-sister, nearly 2-year-old Kimalu. They play, share toys and practice aquatic show behaviors together like pec-fin waves and spitting while swimming on their backs. Same as you did with your kid sister, right?

More big-sis stuff: “Sometimes Bella ‘schools’ Kimalu on hierarchy-appropriate behavior,” Maris says. That means if the youngest beluga pushes her social boundaries, Bella will vocalize, chase her, or give her a swipe with her mouth. These interactions are natural social behaviors that you might see throughout the beluga group.

Bella was born just seconds before the aquarium closed for the day on July 17, 2006. It was as perfect a birth as the marine mammal and veterinary staffs could have wished for as she energetically swam to the surface, took her first, strong breaths, bonded with her mother, Puiji, and quickly located the sweet spot alongside mom where she could easily slipstream as she learned to swim.

Belugas togetherIn her first half hour, she “got her sea legs”—mastering her coordination in the water, negotiating the pool’s rockwork (although Mom was quick to avert any possible collisions) and figuring out that if she released air from her blowhole, her buoyancy changed and she could dive. In another 24 hours, she was nursing and well on her way.

When the yet-to-be-named Bella was 6 weeks old, we posted a “day-in-the-life” blog, drawn from minute-by-minute observations recorded by trainers monitoring the calf, her mom and another female beluga, Naya, around the clock.

(You’ll notice that we refer to the calf as “he.” The gender is usually discovered during the first physical exam, and if the calf is thriving, as Bella was, the animal care and health teams do not interrupt the early mother-and-calf bonding. Rather than call the bouncy, bright-eyed beluga baby the impersonal “it,” many trainers started using “he.”)

Here are excerpts from our Aug. 29, 2006, blog:

12:01 a.m. A new day, and a new observation shift, begin. The calf is resting at the surface, mimicking his semidozing mom.

12:15 a.m. The observer approaches Secluded Bay from the public walkway to count the calf’s respirations. The calf notices and drifts away from Mom, perhaps curious about this middle-of-the-night activity.

Calf nursing12:25 a.m. The calf starts nuzzling Puiji’s side, as if to say, “Wake up, Mom, I’m hungry!”

12:35 a.m. Puiji finally gives in to the calf’s petitions and begins a slow swim. The calf ducks under her, bumping her mammaries, which stimulates milk production.

12:37 a.m. The calf latches onto Mom’s left mammary for 22 seconds, then breaks off for a breath of air.

12:38 a.m. The calf attaches to the left mammary again, this time for only nine seconds. He takes a quick breath, then latches on for 14 seconds more.…

1:05 a.m. Naya, the 17-year-old companion beluga in the habitat with Puiji and the calf, begins a slow swimming pattern around the habitat. The calf decides to slipstream with her.

1:18 a.m. Puiji joins them, and they all swim in a resting formation.… 

6:13 a.m. Daybreak casts golden light into Secluded Bay. Time to rise, shine and scratch. Puiji rubs her back against a rock formation, and the calf follows suit, although not with the same degree of coordination.

6:16 a.m. The calf takes a milk break.

7:40 a.m. Puiji and Naya have their first feeding and training session of the day. The calf trails Mom to her feeding station at the edge of the trainers’ island and watches for a few minutes….

8:00 a.m. Staff divers arrive to clean the Secluded Bay pool, and the calf moves close to Mom. Puiji, who is used to this activity, swims calmly, which seems to reassure the calf that everything is okay.

Calf and diver8:06 a.m. The divers enter the water. The calf stays close to Mom and nurses on schedule. When Puiji occasionally approaches the divers, whom she likes, the calf follows and watches.

8:55 a.m. The divers surface and leave the water.

9:10 a.m. One of Mom’s toys, the “kelp forest” (made of the “soft cloth” strips used in car washes) is tossed into the habitat….

9:14 a.m. Puiji begins to swim in and out of the “kelp,” an activity that will keep her occupied on and off for the next four hours. The calf watches and follows Mom, but doesn’t touch this new object in the water.…

3:46 p.m. The calf practices spitting – something he sees his mom do often. He seems to enjoy it as much as she does, and he amuses himself with projecting water into the air for nearly 20 minutes.

5:00 p.m. Puiji and Naya have their final meal for the day, after which the calf nurses.

6:05 p.m. Trainers throw two boogie boards – miniature surfboards – and other toys for Puiji and Naya to play with throughout the night….

7:02 p.m. As Puiji approaches a toy, the calf cuts her off and tries to steer her away from it, as if he doesn’t want her to get near this unknown object.

7:25 p.m. The sun is setting, the Oceanarium is getting dark, and the activity level in Secluded Bay is slowing down. Puiji and Naya go into resting mode, which is how they started the day.

8:32 p.m. The calf begins another nursing set. Even as all three whales rest, the calf continues to nurse every 30 to 45 minutes, through midnight, giving him the energy he needs for another busy day.

Karen Furnweger, web editor