10 Amazing Facts About the Dolphins and Whales at Shedd Aquarium
As one of the world’s leading dolphin and beluga whale care facilities, Shedd Aquarium strongly respects, supports and complies with the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and bylaws of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), of which we are accredited and are unwavering in our commitment to providing the highest standards of care and well-being for our animals.
Shedd Aquarium will always remain transparent about our work, which is rooted in a committed focus of conserving, protecting and caring for animals to ensure their survival for generations to come.
1. Critical studies and applied conservation
Shedd Aquarium is collecting critical reproductive information, not possible to gather from studying ocean-dwelling populations, but is invaluable for conserving these species and other similar cetaceans.
• Pacific white-sided dolphins are extremely difficult to study in the wild. Shedd Aquarium provides researchers access to gain critical knowledge about this little-understood species, ranging from deeper insights into their hearing threshold to use of echolocation to reproductive physiology; critical information that can lead to life-saving innovations and environmental policies that protect wild dolphins.
• In addition to better understanding the growth and maturity of beluga whales, the animals in the care of accredited aquariums and marine parks have also contributed to the further understanding of their wild counterparts in the areas of immune function, migration patterns and habits, the effect climate change or industrial activities have on specific populations, reproductive physiology and more.
• Field researchers often partner with Shedd Aquarium and other accredited aquariums and zoos to test and validate research methods and create baseline data on species that can be applied to conservation of wild populations.
• Shedd’s decades of experience with beluga whales, as well as years of dedicated field research to learn more about the St. Lawrence Seaway population, led to a binational partnership to join efforts to promote the health and survival of this wild population. The partnership enables Shedd and the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM) to work closely together to share knowledge and expertise, collaborate on research and, ultimately, provide insight into the factors contributing to the decline of this population – and actions geared toward the recovery as well as the protection of the belugas’ environment in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence watershed.
• Since 2008, a research team including Shedd experts has developed innovative protocols for gathering information about the health and well-being of belugas in the Nushagak River, which feeds into Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska.
• Shedd Aquarium is currently participating in the largest-ever, multi-institutional study of how physical habitat, environmental enrichment and animal training impact the welfare of cetaceans in zoos and aquariums worldwide. This study includes 44 accredited facilities in seven countries, with scientists gathering data on approximately 290 common and Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, 20 beluga whales and eight Pacific white-sided dolphins.
• Shedd Aquarium and Georgia Aquarium are partnering with several state and federal agencies and universities to support new research for the at-risk Cook Inlet, Alaska, beluga population to identify factors that are inhibiting its recovery. The study includes expanding understanding of how the whales currently use their habitat, how they forage and if noise pollution is impacting their natural behaviors.
• Because of the knowledge acquired at Shedd, our belugas contribute valuable information to biologists and rescue teams working to save stranded and orphaned beluga calves. In 2017, Shedd Aquarium participated in two successful rescues, including the rescue and relocation of a young male beluga whale that was separated from its pod and found alone hundreds of kilometers from its usual summer range in Canada. The binational operation was the first scientific rescue and release attempt for the endangered St. Lawrence Estuary population.
Shedd Aquarium provides dolphins with optimal welfare through its dynamic habitats and advanced animal care program.
• Shedd Aquarium, accredited by the Association for Zoos and Aquariums, provides many forms of environmental enrichment, creating daily opportunities for mental and physical stimulation as part of a well-rounded, holistic animal care program.
3. Veterinary care and nutrition
Shedd Aquarium’s robust animal care program provides the highest quality veterinary expertise and optimal nutrition to keep the dolphins healthy, active and engaged.
• The dolphins and whales at Shedd Aquarium receive optimal nutrition including a varied diet of fresh, sustainable restaurant-quality seafood daily from expert caregivers.
• Studies on nutritional needs of cetaceans are providing vital information not only for improved care but can also help protect wild cetaceans.
• Through routine health monitoring, regular preventive care checkups and expert veterinarians on staff, Shedd Aquarium provides the highest quality health care.
• Shedd Aquarium has more than 40 animal experts and trainers to monitor all of our animals’ health and well-being each day, as well as maintain their dietary, environmental and medical needs. This high level of attention and care is supported by three full-time veterinarians, several veterinary residents, an on-site animal hospital and diagnostic, environmental-quality and microbiome laboratories.
Shedd Aquarium’s dolphin and whale care program includes dynamic training and enrichment opportunities every day that create a positive environment conducive to providing expert veterinary care and optimal animal welfare.
• Educational programs, like the aquatic presentation at Shedd Aquarium, are an animal care best practice. It is a requirement of AZA accreditation that guest demonstrations featuring animals in human care must contain conservation messaging, as well as feature activities that utilize the natural behaviors of the animals.
• Training allows for advanced veterinary care practices. Not only does it provide the animals with physical and mental stimulation, it also is an important tool in helping to routinely monitor the health of the animals and administer medical treatment when required. The training helps the animals participate in their own health care so that it is an easy, routine experience for them.
• Shedd Aquarium’s animal training program creates an environment conducive to supporting scientific research that is critical for advancing the care and conservation of dolphins and whales.
• Our aquatic presentation celebrates the human connection to animals and spotlights Shedd’s exceptional animal care and training. Presentations feature Pacific white-sided dolphins, beluga whales, California sea lions and penguins. Guests can observe natural behaviors, hear rescue and rehabilitation stories of some of our resident animals and learn about how we build the strong bonds of trust between animals and trainers central to their health and well-being.
Breeding and reproduction of beluga whales and Pacific white-sided dolphins at Shedd Aquarium is not only a natural part of the animals' life cycle, but it is also vital to advancing the scientific body of knowledge about reproduction, gestation and calf rearing that is infeasible to learn about through observations of ocean-dwelling populations.
• Shedd Aquarium is a vital science research station collecting critical reproductive information that is infeasible to gain from observing ocean-dwelling populations.
• Through around-the-clock observations by trainers and routine veterinary exams, Shedd collects information about fetal heart rates, neonatal health, nursing times, mother-calf bonding, and more—much of which would be difficult or impossible to collect from wild dolphins or belugas.
• Most of what is known about marine mammal reproduction has been learned by studying animals in zoological facilities. These studies, which have provided important scientific advances that have assisted both rescued animals and those in professional care, have the potential to be used in the field to protect marine mammals.
• Natural breeding and calf rearing is one part of a robust, multifaceted animal welfare program.
• Shedd Aquarium’s success with whale and dolphin births is providing invaluable information on optimal husbandry and maternal care that is being applied worldwide.
6. Habitats and environment
With 3 million gallons of seawater and six diverse and vibrant habitats, Shedd Aquarium’s Abbott Oceanarium is one of the largest indoor marine mammal habitats in the United States, offering animal pods an enriching environment in which to thrive.
• Shedd Aquarium’s Abbott Oceanarium was designed specifically to meet the needs of Pacific white-sided dolphins and beluga whales, offering varied and enriching elements to encourage healthy behavior and optimal animal care.
• The habitats are enriched daily with novel objects and devices for the whales and dolphins to explore and play with, and the water temperature is shifted seasonally to mimic the natural environment.
• Shedd Aquarium participated in cutting-edge research on dolphin hearing thresholds and acoustic abilities, ensuring the whales and dolphins would be comfortable and unaffected by ambient noise within the Oceanarium.
• Shedd Aquarium is a recognized leader in animal care. With AZA-accreditation, we continually work innovatively to meet and surpass the highest standards, ensuring animal habitats are mentally and physically stimulating.
Sea pens: There is no scientific evidence that proves sea pens or “sea sanctuaries” provide a better environment for the welfare of dolphins or whales. It is a different option, which has existed for decades and comes with different environmental and animal health considerations.
7. Education and observation
Each year, we welcome approximately 2 million guests through our doors tot have an opportunity to experience, connect with and care about marine mammals that they would likely never have the chance to see in the wild. Studies show that visits to zoos and aquariums prompt guests to reconsider their role in environmental problems, take conservation action and see themselves as part of the solution.
• Additional global studies also suggest that viewing charismatic wildlife can influence the public's connection to a species, resulting in a willingness to participate in pro-conservation behavior, an important part of Shedd Aquarium’s mission.
• Shedd Aquarium provides visitors a chance to observe up close and learn from a rarely seen and under-studied dolphin species.
• Making a connection with animals at Shedd Aquarium has inspired guests to pursue careers in animal care and conservation.
8. Collaborations and partnerships
Shedd Aquarium collaborates with many agencies, not-for-profit organizations, zoological partners and universities to increase knowledge and understanding about beluga whales and Pacific white-sided dolphins in an effort to continually provide optimal care and conservation for the species.
• Shedd Aquarium collaborates with other zoological facilities, sharing years of experience and scientific knowledge gleaned from working with whales and dolphins.
• Shedd experts are members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) and the International Marine Animal Trainers Association (IMATA), among other professional organizations.
9. Collection from the wild
Shedd Aquarium’s whale and dolphin populations include animals born in human care and in the wild, although we have not collected whales or dolphins from the wild for more than 25 years.
10. Inhumane practices
Shedd Aquarium remains steadfast in our opposition to the inhumane slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan. None of the dolphins in our care have come from the Japanese dolphin drive hunts, nor have we ever considered acquiring such animals, which would support, fund and further this inhumane practice. In fact, it has been illegal to bring animals from these drive hunts into the United States for decades, long before the increased public awareness of these drive fisheries. There are no dolphins taken from drive fisheries at any zoological facility in the United Sates.