At this time last year, you shared the suspense as Pacific white-sided dolphin Katrl’s newborn calf hit those first make-or-break milestones: pumping his little body to the surface for air, bonding and learning to slipstream with mom, and the nail-biter, successful nursing.

You read how he grew like a weed and breezed through new milestones: meeting the other dolphins, exploring the Abbott Oceanarium habitats and gaining skills from leaping to playing to vocalizing. You might have seen him in the aquatic presentation, staying close to mom.

And maybe a young person in your household took part in the kids-only balloting to name the calf, which went overwhelmingly for “Kukdlaa.” His name means “bubbles” in Tlingit, the language of one of the Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest, where this dolphin species can be found.

On April 18, we’ll celebrate Kukdlaa’s biggest milestone of all: his first birthday. At that point, we can finally say that this was a successful birth. We’re sure he’ll get extra treats and rubs, and he’ll have a one-year checkup with the veterinary team.

See a "fin-tastic" livestream of the dolphins at Shedd!

Kukdlaa currently weighs 161 pounds. That’s more than five times as heavy as he was at birth. Although he’s not as filled out as 2-year-old Makoa, he is already longer at nearly 6 feet.

While Kukdlaa won’t be fully grown until he’s about 3 years old, he has the genes to be a large animal. Mom Katrl is visibly the biggest dolphin in Shedd’s pod at 7 feet and 280 pounds.

These days Kukdlaa eats up to 10 pounds of capelin and herring each day in addition to still nursing regularly, so he’s getting plenty of protein and calories to stoke both his growth and exuberant energy. He’ll continue to nurse for another six months to a year. Weaning is the final milestone.

Maris Muzzy, cetacean manager, reports that Kukdlaa has mastered all of the basic “building-block” behaviors, taught using positive reinforcement, that establish his trusting relationship with the marine mammals staff. Among his accomplishments, “He can discriminate his name shape from the other animals’,” she says. Each dolphin is assigned a unique visual cue, or shape—for Kukdlaa, it’s a white cloud—that tells the animal to go to a specific location for training or other interactions.

Maris adds that he also responds well to targets, which can be a trainer’s hand or a hand-held buoy that he touches with his snout, or rostrum. “He also will follow a trainer when asked, and he’s quickly learning to move from one trainer to another, a behavior called ‘A to B.’”

Every once in a while, Kukdlaa’s focus on training wanders, and he takes his reward fish down to one of the underwater windows and plays with it. “But most of the time he stays with his trainer,” Maris says. And he’s ready for more advanced behaviors.

“He is now starting to learn important medical behaviors, such as mouth checks and body exams, as well as some new behaviors for mental stimulation and physical exercise,” Maris adds. “He also shows a lot of interest in informal interactions with trainers.”

Of course to Kukdlaa, it’s all play, with tasty fish or body rubdowns as rewards.

He does have preferred toys, including balls, which he tries to jump on and push underwater, and that favorite among all the marine mammals, car wash strips—ersatz kelp strands that he tugs on.

As the calf becomes more independent, he is showing a lot of interest in the other dolphins. When Kukdlaa isn’t with Katrl, he pair swims with adult females Kri or Munchkin. And he often hangs with the other young males (and his half-siblings on his father’s side), Makoa and 5-year-old Sagu. “He watches closely what Sagu and Makoa are doing,” Maris says, “and often copies their behavior.”

You can see for yourself when we begin a livestream in the Abbott Oceanarium on Monday, April 17. Enjoy this window into the young dolphin’s activities and development, something not even marine biologists can observe in the wild! Be sure to plan a visit, too, to see Kukdlaa in person and wish him a happy first birthday.

Karen Furnweger, web editor

Read how we celebrate, and learn from, all the marine mammals here.

You can symbolically adopt a dolphin and receive quarterly updates on Kukdlaa and all the others. Your donation will support our top-quality care for the dolphins as well as our research into this little-studied species