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Shedd Aquarium Mourns Loss of Beloved Beluga Whale

November 14, 2022

Beluga whale, Mauyak, at Shedd Aquarium.

CHICAGO – Shedd Aquarium is deeply saddened to announce the loss of Mauyak (MY-ack), a 41-year-old female beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) who died Saturday.

“She was a very independent whale, extremely playful and was an attentive mom to her calves,” said Peggy Sloan, Chief Animal Operations Officer for Shedd. “The matriarch of our beluga pod, her passing is heartbreaking to everyone who loves beluga whales. And yet, we are so grateful for what we have learned by caring for her for over three decades– from helping field researchers better understand her species to inform wild populations and their management to their unique world of communication that includes squeals, trills, chirps and amazing mimicking abilities.”

Mauyak, whose name meant “soft snow,” came to Shedd from Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Wash. in 1997 as part of Shedd’s involvement in the North American beluga breeding cooperative. Born in 1981, she was recognizable among the aquarium’s pod by the dark gray streaks on her otherwise white sides. At 11-feet long and 1,500 pounds, Mauyak was frequently spotted spyhopping and squirting water. While all belugas share an extraordinary repertoire of vocalizations, which earn this species the old-time mariners’ nickname of ‘canaries of the sea,’ Mauyak’s was an especially fine, deep foghorn.

“She quickly became, and remained throughout her long life, an incredible ambassador for beluga whales, touching the lives of millions of people who were able to look her in the eye, marvel at her beauty, and experience her one-of-a-kind characteristics.” said Senior Animal Caretaker Megan Vens-Policky. “Her legacy of impact is not only left on those she inspired during visits to the aquarium, but also on researchers in the field. During her pregnancies at Shedd, our measurements of Mauyak’s growth contributed to a photogrammetry study – images that allow field biologists to identify pregnant whales more accurately in the wild to protect them. It is a privilege to be a part of advancing welfare and science that will help to ensure these beautiful creatures remain on our blue planet for generations to come. I am so grateful to have known Mauyak. She will be profoundly missed.”

Through the real-time application of her work onsite with Mauyak, Vens-Policky is part of a team that travels from Shedd to Alaska annually to participate in a biological survey of the world’s most vulnerable and critically endangered subpopulations of belugas located in the Cook Inlet. With less than 300 whales left, the initiative is part of recovery efforts meant to help the population rebound from the brink of extinction.

For more than two decades, accredited aquariums and marine parks have led or participated in an extensive number of published studies, which have provided important insight into how these whales learn and grow, from reproduction and neonatal care to bioacoustics, behavior and biology. In addition to better understanding the growth and maturity of belugas, 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 affect climate change or industrial activities have on specific populations, reproductive physiology and more.

Among Shedd’s most recent scientific endeavors includes participation in a multi-institutional study across seven countries to collect data to increase understanding of health and welfare of cetaceans in professional care as well as years of dedicated field research to learn more about the St. Lawrence Seaway population through a bi-national partnership to join efforts to promote the health and survival of the wild population in the Great Lakes.

Scientists estimate the average life expectancy for beluga whales in human care to be 30-35 years, which is “equal to, if not greater than” wild beluga whales. A team of pathologists from the University of Illinois Zoological Pathology Program have performed a necropsy (the animal version of an autopsy) to collect diagnostic samples to continue to gain insight into belugas, and specifically Mauyak’s biology.