A visit to Shedd Aquarium isn’t complete without saying hi to the beluga whales and Pacific white-sided dolphins in the Abbott Oceanarium. And now is a great time to visit and wish dolphin calf Sagu a happy second birthday on May 28!

We delight in everything he does, even when—especially when—he leaps in the opposite direction as the other dolphins during the aquatic show’s finale. He’s still learning.

Sagu gives us a special chance to learn about his species. Few other aquariums anywhere offer you the opportunity to watch the graceful athleticism, above and below water, of Pacific white-sided dolphins. And where else in the Midwest can you get face to face with the “smiling” beluga whales?

At the same time that Shedd’s beloved whales and dolphins have connected tens of millions of guests to the living world, they have also helped Shedd researchers and their colleagues at zoological facilities, universities and government wildlife agencies in the United States and other countries explore the still largely uncharted world of cetacean biology and behavior. The ever-growing body of scientific knowledge furthers the conservation of these species both in aquarium settings and in the wild.

Studies at home and in the field
Like young humans, whale and dolphin calves learn how to “talk,” or vocalize. A partner researcher tracked how beluga calf Nunavik’s vocalizations developed during his first year, using underwater sound recordings. The study documented what types of sounds Nunavik produced and how his vocalizations compared to those of his mother and other whales. The study sets the stage for identifying developmental milestones in a calf’s repertoire — one more area of knowledge that will serve Shedd and its partners in the North American beluga breeding cooperative.

Our expertise in caring for the marine mammals at Shedd can be applied to helping the same species in the wild, and in turn, field experiences can deepen our understanding of the animals here. Shedd’s marine mammal team members have been called upon to assist in rescues of stranded belugas. And they have used techniques developed at Shedd for handling the large whales to help with health assessments conducted on a population of wild belugas in Alaska. The success of that pilot study, which was carried out safely for animals and veterinarians alike, led to federal funding for a long-term study of these whales, with Shedd’s continuing involvement.

Inspiring closer connections
Shedd’s commitment to the care of marine mammals is also expressed in extraordinary educational opportunities that create inspiring personal connections between guests and animals. Since the Trainer for a Day program began in 2004, more than 3,200 people have shadowed a marine mammal expert, learning what it takes to care for the belugas, dolphins and other Abbott Oceanarium animals. The popular beluga encounters have enabled more than 5,900 participants to wade chest deep into a private pool for a trainer-guided one-on-one experience with one of the whales. The encounter is often described as “life-changing” and an inspiration to conserve and protect these whales in the wild.

You can always start a connection with the whales and dolphins at the Abbott Oceanarium’s vast underwater viewing windows. Be sure to wish Sagu a happy birthday as he zooms by! And tell us which Shedd animal excited you the first time you saw it. Did it inspire you to make a difference?