Beluga swimmingWorld Oceans Day, June 8, is a time to celebrate the dazzling diversity of that vast body of salt water that covers 70 percent of our planet—and to recommit ourselves to protecting its beauty and bounty.

And it’s a good time to check in with 9-month-old beluga calf Kimalu (KEE-mah-loo). Certainly belugas are among the most endearing of the ocean’s residents.

Kimalu’s name means "something or someone special" in the language of the Inuit people of Canada’s northern territories. She’s easy to spot in the Abbott Oceanarium: Look for the smallest and grayest of Shedd’s young whales. Of course, size is relative—she’s about 6½ feet long and weighs more than 300 pounds. 

Kimalu in waterKimalu continues to nurse throughout the day from both mom Mauyak and "auntie" Naya. (Female whales who are closely associated with a mother will spontaneously produce milk, an adaptation that improves a calf’s chances of survival). And the little whale loves those slippy-slidey fish that the big whales sometimes drop—as toys. She will swim around with a herring or capelin in her mouth in an endless game of spit-it-out/suck-it-in-again—unless she accidentally swallows it! In the next few months, as the calf’s digestive system develops, fish will start going down on purpose. 

Like the other belugas and the dolphins (and many more animals at Shedd), Kimalu was assigned a hand-held shape that signals her to swim to a trainer. Each animal has his or her distinctive shape; Kimalu’s is a scallop-edged white disk that senior trainer Maris Muzzy calls a cloud.  

Maris, who is manager of cetaceans, said that the calf quickly picked up the concept of the shape, "stopping on a dime" to look at it. "Now she definitely knows her shape, which we use at the start of sessions, just like we do with the adult whales," the trainer says. "We are still focusing on building trust and relationships," she continues, "so we are not asking Kimalu to do much of anything, except have fun with us!"

But the calf is already learning from the other belugas. "She’s been practicing many of the behaviors she sees the adults do," Maris says, "so you will regularly see her doing really good spits while swimming on her back, and waving her tail or pectoral fins." Kimalu also watches how the other belugas interact with their environment, and she mimics many of those behaviors—including scratching her back on the rockwork and pool floor, which not only feels good but also helps to peel her old, sloughing skin. She has also learned to slide out onto the trainers islands, but Mauyak is always there to push her back into the water. 

Kimalu is also picking up some questionable behaviors from the bigger kids—Bella, Miki and Nunavik. This playful trio likes to push on the dividers between pools, trying—unsuccessfully—to open them. "Kimalu has copied their behavior," Maris says, "much to our chagrin!"

But beluga calves just want to have fun. Kimalu’s favorite new game is what the trainers call "push-downs." Maris explains, "The trainer pushes her down or backward by squishing her melon, then she bobs back up so the trainer can push her down again. We think it might be a fun variation of experimenting with her buoyancy."

While Shedd’s belugas live in an "ocean" that’s completely filtered every three hours and eat restaurant-grade seafood, some wild populations are facing environmental threats from oil-drilling projects in the Arctic and from toxic contaminants, especially in the industrial St. Lawrence River. Shedd’s scientists were part of a multiyear collaborative field research program studying the beluga population in Bristol Bay, Alaska. They collected baseline data on the health status, distribution and movements of this thriving group to better understand how to help beluga populations under pressure from manmade environmental changes.

Every animal in the ocean, from zooplankton to top predators, is endangered by plastic trash: bags and colorful lids that are mistaken for food; flotsam that clogs nesting beaches; and objects that have broken down into microscopic particles that are getting into the bodies of animals that are the very foundation of the food web—and then moving up through prey and predator all the way to us.

We can make a significant difference for beluga whales, sea turtles, seabirds—and ultimately, ourselves—by limiting our use of plastic and recycling what we do use. The discarded pop bottle you pick up on the lakeshore or a riverbank and place in a recycling bin won’t find its way into some animal’s habitat. You can join a concerted effort to clean up our local aquatic environment by taking part in one of Shedd’s Great Lakes Action Days. Watch our website for upcoming summer and fall dates!

Belugas are circumpolar, living in the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, as well as in Hudson Bay and the St. Lawrence River. We think little Kimalu is a great ambassador for this year’s World Oceans Day, connecting us to the saltwater realm, putting a hopeful face on conservation issues, and inspiring us to make a difference.

And that’s something special.

Karen Furnweger, web editor