The miniature flukes appeared at 6:02 Monday morning. “Oh, it’s perfect!” exclaimed Lisa Takaki, senior director of marine mammals.
For the next three hours and 12 minutes, more than 40 members of Shedd’s animal care and veterinary teams stood rapt at the underwater windows of Secluded Bay as Pacific white-sided dolphin Katrl (kuh-TREHL) calmly circled the habitat, sometimes crunching her body, sometimes pumping her own flukes to advance the progress of the birth. (Even belugas in an adjoining habitat rubbernecked at the gate to see what was happening.)
Once in a while the dolphin stopped at a window to peer back at familiar faces or popped up at a trainers platform for a rubdown or a snack of herring and capelin.
At 9:14, Katrl swam close to the surface and gave a final push. “It’s out!” someone cheered. “Go, guys, go!” “Its first breath!” With that essential milestone passed, everyone applauded the arrival of the approximately 3-foot, 25-pound new member of the Shedd family.
“As soon as those little tail flukes appear, your heart begins to race, and you know it’s only a matter of time before you are about to witness something incredibly amazing,” Lisa said. “To watch a dolphin be born is beautiful, but to also see its natural instincts fully take over in a matter of seconds as it kicks its tail to propel its little body to the surface to take its first breath is overwhelmingly emotional.”
As Katrl and her newborn began the bonding process, everyone hurried back to work. Some began the around-the-clock job of monitoring the pair, either at the underwater windows or around the rim of the habitat in dive gear, ready to assist if the calf needed help. Others left to carry on the daily care of Shedd’s other animals.
“We are overjoyed that both mom and calf are doing well in these critical first hours,” Lisa continued, “but we also know we are not out of the woods. We’re watching both animals carefully and recording their behaviors minute by minute to ensure their progress aligns with what we have seen in other successful calf births at Shedd.”
For Shedd’s new president and CEO, Dr. Bridget Coughlin, witnessing the birth was a unique start to her second week at the aquarium. “It was incredible,” she said. “Plus it was personally exhilarating. I was amazed at how big the calf is in comparison to Mom—nearly half her length.” Katrl is Shedd’s largest dolphin at 7 feet and 260 pounds.
She continued, “Pacific white-sided dolphin births have never been seen in the wild, so it’s a unique opportunity for Shedd to deepen our scientific knowledge of this species.”
This is the third successful dolphin birth at Shedd and the first calf for 28½-year-old Katrl, who mated with Li’i at the Miami Seaquarium. Lisa said, “We couldn’t be more proud of the job Katrl is doing as a new mother, showing signs of protectiveness by steering her calf away from the sides of the habitat and helping to guide it into swimming position to conserve its energy reserves.
“Not all first-time mothers are successful in knowing how to rear their newborns. She is being extremely attentive.”
Katrl gained experience observing Piquet and her two calves; she was the first adult dolphin introduced to Sagu, born in 2012, and he still swims and interacts with her often. During her pregnancy, Katrl also had nursing training on how to present her mammary glands, using a hand-held puppet shaped like a calf.
Nursing is perhaps the most difficult milestone, both for the calf and mother and for the people observing. The calf will instinctively mouth its mother’s side, but mom has to guide it to her recessed mammary glands, near her tail, and the calf has to latch on. All the while both are swimming. Concerns about successful nursing are higher with first-time mothers like Katrl.
The marine mammals team heaved a collective sigh of relief when the calf was observed firmly attached to mom, leaking a little milk around his mouth as he worked on this new skill. Katrl’s high-fat milk not only provides the calories and proteins the calf needs to gain weight and grow, but the first milk the calf gets also contains colostrum, a potent dose of Mom’s antibodies, which will protect it from infection.
This birth increases the population of Pacific white-sided dolphins in accredited North American aquariums and zoos to 16. It is significant to the continued genetic diversity of this group as well as to the scientific and zoological communities dedicated to better understanding the biology and behaviors of this rarely studied species.
So that Katrl and her calf can have privacy to bond and achieve critical milestones, both levels of Secluded Bay are closed to the public. The rest of the Abbott Oceanarium, including Polar Play Zone, is open, and access to the sea otters, beluga whales and penguins is not affected.
Follow updates on the calf’s progress here and on Facebook and Twitter.
—Karen Furnweger, web editor