Lisa Takaki, senior director of marine mammals, vividly remembers Kayavak’s birth early on the morning of Aug. 3, 1999. “I can't believe she’s 15! Where does the time go?” the marine mammal trainer marvels.

KayavakToday the 11-foot-6, 1,300-pound beluga whale throws her weight around during aquatic shows, breaching and crashing backward with a huge splash. Kayavak is now the second largest beluga at Shedd, after female Naya, and she exerts her presence in her social relationships, too.

Maris Muzzy, cetacean manager, says, “Kayavak applies all her skills to establishing and maintaining her position as an adult in the social hierarchy.” That social structure is in constant flux, she adds. Kayavak asserts herself with Naya and Mauyak, the eldest female beluga, through such natural behaviors as vocalizing and jaw popping. But when the three are grouped together, they also frequently swim quietly in formation or share toys.

“The adult females recognize and accept Kayavak as an adult,” Maris says. “There is a possibility that she may be working herself into the dominant role.” But she notes that Kayavak’s social position among the senior females remains to be seen right now because the whale has spent the summer with Miki and Nunavik. “She is definitely dominant in her three-whale group with the young males!”

Special and spunky
Kayavak was special from the start. Beluga births were still infrequent—aquariums had witnessed only 10 in the preceding 50 years. As the first of Shedd’s six beluga calves, her birth drew cheers and happy tears from the attending staff members.

Although small—4 feet 6 inches and 116 pounds at birth—with her first breath Kayavak was a strong, independent swimmer. “Spunky” was the word most often used to describe her. She quickly mastered the tricky technique of nursing while swimming alongside mom Immiayuk, and by the time she was 2 months old, she weighed an estimated 200 pounds.

Ken Ramirez, executive vice president of animal care and training, said at the time, “She’s very playful, mimics Mom, has good energy and thus far has progressed like a textbook case of how you would hope a healthy beluga whale will grow and develop.”

A window (and hydrophone) on beluga development
Kayavak contributed chapters to that textbook. As they do with every marine mammal birth, trainers were stationed in the underwater viewing area of Secluded Bay around the clock to monitor the calf and her mom and record first-ever behavioral data on a neonate beluga.

In a 1999 interview Ken said, “We learned a lot just during [the] calf’s first few hours. Previously we thought that beluga calves had to surface very one or two minutes, but we found out a beluga calf can hold its breath for at least five minutes”—as could the staff members who anxiously watched and waited for her to come up for air during her leisurely exploration of the habitat floor.

Using a hydrophone, the trainers recorded Kayavak’s vocalizations, which began when she was 12 minutes old. Among the interesting and important things they learned was how she acquired new vocalizations, how her vocalizations changed over time, and how and when other the belugas reacted to the sounds.

“Everything that we learn is valuable information when you realize that there have been so few births to watch and monitor,” Ken continued in the interview. “Great research has been done by observing calves in the wild, but we only see them when they break the surface for a breath of air. Here we can correlate and compare our data to wild observations as well as to data from other facilities [in the North American cooperative beluga breeding program].

“The information we gain from [the] breeding program enables us to contribute to the long-term care of animals in aquariums and zoos as well as long-term management of populations in the wild.”

And when Shedd’s beluga experts were summoned to Alaska to assist with the care of a stranded newborn, they drew on personal as well as professional experience: Kayavak was the first successfully hand-raised beluga calf. When she was 5 months old, her mother was stricken by a fast-moving, incurable bacterial infection. (Thanks to Shedd’s leadership in understanding this disease, which afflicts belugas in the wild as well as in aquariums, it can now be treated successfully.)

Kayavak

The Marine Mammals department jumped in to become Kayavak’s surrogate mom. The trainers kept her company around the clock, hand-feeding her eight times a day and swimming with her every half hour. One trainer noted that the work was cold and exhausting, but it was a labor of love. And everyone wanted the overnight shift because Kayavak was so lively and playful at 3 a.m.

Kayavak thrived on the attentive care of her human pod while she was too small to be with the adult belugas, and even today she remains exceptionally close to the Marine Mammals staffers. Maris notes, “She’ll chastise younger belugas Nunavik and Kimalu, chasing them or vocalizing when they do something she deems inappropriate, such as coming too close when she’s busy interacting with the trainers.”

Visit soon to wish Kayavak a happy birthday! And get ready for another beluga birthday on Aug. 16. Whatever their age, the belugas LOVE toys. We hope you’ll visit our Amazon wish list and consider enriching the belugas’ play sessions with a new toy. Be sure to include your name, address and email when you check out so we can send you a thank-you!

Karen Furnweger, web editor