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Energetic Beluga Whale Calf Born at Shedd Aquarium

First-Time Mother and Calf are Bonding Behind the Scenes as Animal Care Observes

August 24, 2020

A tiny beluga calf lifts its head from the water to breathe.

Bella, a 14-year-old beluga whale at Shedd Aquarium, gave birth to an energetic calf on Friday, August 21 at 8:42 p.m. While there are several critical milestones ahead for the new calf, the animal care team is hopeful and encouraged by what they have seen so far. Mom and calf are spending time alone behind the scenes to bond and focus on care.

Bella is a first-time mother, and current scientific knowledge of belugas and dolphins is that first-time mothers often experience a higher calf mortality rate. Observing and scientifically documenting calf interactions is extremely valuable to further identification and understanding of the challenges and successes associated with the species and first-time births, making data collection of the growing calf even more critical. The animal care team remains cautiously optimistic and will continue around-the-clock monitoring to ensure that mom and calf have all the support that they need.

“As the calf swam to the surface and took its first breath, it brought with it the palpable hope of new life and fresh beginnings -- something we all appreciate,” said Dr. Bridget Coughlin, president and CEO of Shedd Aquarium. “We at Shedd Aquarium continue to be humbled by the opportunity we have to share this excitement with the public and create meaningful moments of wonder and learning through the aquatic animal world.”

Bella delivered the calf after nearly 15 hours of labor. While most beluga calves are usually born tail first -- allowing them to unfurl their flukes before the final push and swim to the surface for that all-important first breath -- Bella’s calf arrived headfirst. Despite this, the calf immediately powered itself to the surface.

As is often the case in the days following delivery, the calf is not yet independently nursing. The care team is in the water every three hours, assisting with feeding the calf. The calf weighs in at 139 pounds and measures 5’3” in length. Animal care and veterinary staff were also able to determine that the calf is male.

A Shedd trainer wearing a face mask gently guides a tiny beluga calf in the water.

“Beluga gestation is more than a year long, and we used this time for careful preparations and planning,” said Peggy Sloan, chief animal operations officer at Shedd Aquarium. “Our animal care team is thrilled and grateful for this calf’s healthy and successful arrival. The birth is a testament to our commitment to belugas across the globe, as we are even better positioned to contribute to rescue efforts, policy-making and research meant to safeguard belugas in need.”

On the heels of this birth is the anticipation of another impending beluga calf due any day now to 31-year-old beluga whale, Naya, at Shedd.

In the past few years, Shedd has been called on to assist in two juvenile beluga rescue and rehabilitation efforts – one in the St. Lawrence Estuary and the other up in Alaska’s Cook Inlet. Participation in both unprecedented events was possible due to the decades of daily care and experience with the species.

Shedd will continue to share updates in the coming days on the calf’s development, as well as Naya’s progress.

In the meantime, while guests may not be immediately able to see the belugas, they can come eye-to-eye with sea otters, jellies, sharks and thousands of fish species and much more throughout the aquarium.

Though Shedd is now open to guests, public funding and support remains crucial to Shedd’s continued success. Anyone interested in fueling Shedd’s mission and helping to offset the financial impacts of the aquarium’s closure can do so by purchasing a ticket to visit, symbolically adopting an animal, making a one-time donation or becoming an aquarium member.

VISUAL NOTE: Visit the following link to download high-resolution photos and footage from Bella’s delivery:
Photo credit: ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez
Video credit: ©Shedd Aquarium/Sam Cejtin