Shedd Aquarium’s animal care and animal health teams made the exciting announcement today that beluga whale Mauyak (MAH-yak) is expecting a calf in summer 2019. She has successfully given birth to three calves here, including Kimalu, a female born in August 2012.

Mauyak’s pregnancy was confirmed with an ultrasound scan after regular blood tests showed consistently elevated levels of reproductive hormones. The gestation period for belugas is between 14 and 16 months. Mauyak is an experienced, attentive mom, and Shedd’s veterinarians and marine mammal trainers are cautiously optimistic that all will go well for the 37-year-old whale and her new calf.

The 11-foot white whale with gray streaks on her expanding sides will continue to be in the daily aquatic presentations for as long as she wants to participate. Physical and mental activity remain important during pregnancy. Training sessions, which reinforce cooperative behaviors for blood sampling, ultrasound scans and physical checkups, give trainers frequent opportunities to monitor her overall health and the development of the calf. 

Shedd Aquarium is one of six North American aquariums and zoos participating in a cooperative beluga breeding program that has benefited the charismatic whales through shared expertise and a growing database on their biology, reproduction and neonatal care. This collaboration was formed to ensure that the aquarium and zoo population of belugas remains healthy, genetically diverse and self-sustaining.

Peggy Sloan, Shedd’s chief animal operations officer, said, “In addition to the excitement and joy of an aquarium birth, each addition affords our team as well as our professional community the opportunity to grow our understanding of how to care for animals here and in the wild. There is no better feeling than taking what we learn at Shedd and applying it to a rescue operation in the field or a conservation effort to safeguard this species.”

A 2017 assessment by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) of the circumpolar beluga population indicated that numbers are stable in known groups except for the Cook Inlet, Alaska, subpopulation, which has been evaluated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as critically endangered.

Shedd currently cofunds three studies in Cook Inlet to better understand why, despite federal protection, this subpopulation is not recovering. Last year, Shedd’s beluga experts were part of the first-ever successful rescue and rehabilitation of a weeks-old calf from this group. Also in 2017, they participated in a binational rescue of a juvenile from the small, declining subpopulation in the St. Lawrence Estuary, which is listed as endangered by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Shedd offers you a window into beluga whales’ daily lives that isn’t even available to field researchers. Be sure to visit Mauyak often to track her progress and wish her well in her next motherhood experience.

Karen Furnweger