Editor's note: After nearly 25 years at Shedd, Jessica Whiton left in 2020 to become the beluga curator at Sea Life Beluga Whale Sanctuary in Iceland.
Jessica Whiton’s relationship with Kayavak goes back to Aug. 3, 1999—the day the beluga whale was born. The assistant supervisor of marine mammals says, “She was the first successful beluga birth at Shedd. I’d only been here three years at that time, so it was pretty exciting for me.”
Jessica had been part of the 24-hour watch team, monitoring first-time mom Immiayuk for signs of labor. “Now that we’ve seen so many births, we know what to look for, but then it was more guesswork. It was very stressful and it was very exciting for us. What seemed like a long labor was probably normal. When Kayavak was born, she was very long and skinny. The beluga calves born since then are always fat! So Kayavak was unique from the start.”
The around-the-clock observations and recordkeeping on mom and calf were much the same as now, except that the trainers used notebooks—paper notebooks—and pens instead of computers to take down the minute-by-minute data. “But we were looking for bonding with the mom, nursing, paired swimming, all the milestone behaviors that we track with every birth. With the database we’ve built, beginning then, we’ve learned so much about the belugas in our care and added to the science about the species.”
After witnessing the calf’s first breath, Jessica and the others watched anxiously for inexperienced Immi to figure out how to get the calf to nurse. But the calf was a strong swimmer, and once she started nursing, she quickly mastered the technique and progressed like a textbook case of how a healthy calf should develop.
“On Christmas Day,” Jessica recalls, “Kayavak’s mom suddenly got sick. She died the next day. Kayavak was still nursing. She was only 4½ months old, and usually beluga whales might start to wean at about 6 months. So on Dec. 26, Kayavak’s care changed dramatically.”
“We have relationships with the other animals, but we were her beluga family. She knows us on a different level than the other belugas do.”Jessica Whiton
So did her relationship with Jessica and the other trainers: They became her family, around the clock, for months.
“We’d take half-hour shifts where we’d be in the water socializing with her, swimming with her, feeding her,” says Jessica. “Because she had not learned to eat fish yet, we started with formula. But we also began teaching her to eat fish, and within a month to six weeks after she was orphaned, we were able to transition her to eating on her own.”
Those early months forged an incredible relationship with an animal who is by circumstances unique. “She’s very different,” Jessica says. “We have relationships with the other animals, but we were her beluga family. She knows us on a different level than the other belugas do. I feel like she communicates with us as if we were other belugas. But it’s good because we understand what she means.”
Kayavak has the greatest familiarity with Jessica and a few other trainers who have been with her from birth. These were her focus trainers who taught her the basics. “I was one of the first ones to work with her, working on her basic husbandry behaviors for medical exams, enabling the veterinarians to care for her as easily as possible. I mixed it up with fun behaviors, so I also taught her to spin. But most of what I taught her are problem-solving behaviors.
“You could see the wheels turning. It’s this piece, this communication she’s able to give me by making choices that can help me make better choices for her.”Jessica Whiton
“Kayavak has a special plan,” Jessica continues, “because she doesn’t always respond to training as well as the other belugas do. So we give her more choices. When I give her a hand signal, she can choose to do a requested behavior and get a reward, or she can choose to not do it—the same as the other animals. But we added a third choice, to touch one of our target buoys, which also brings a reward. And this changed her attitude. She’s just a little bit more advanced, and we needed to give her more choices over her environment.
“My most rewarding experience with Kayavak was making that connection with that buoy for her and seeing that behavioral change, seeing that increased quality in the training sessions for her. You could see the wheels turning. It’s this piece, this communication she’s able to give me by making choices that can help me make better choices for her.
Currently Jessica is working on giving Kayavak the ability to choose her reinforcement: The whale can choose a game she likes to play with her ball, she can get a tongue tickle—which belugas love—or she can choose a fish. “So she can choose a behavior, and when she comes back, she chooses what reinforcement she would like, and she gets that reinforcement,” Jessica says.
“By taking this extra step for this animal, who is just a little bit different and who has a better understanding of our training program because she’s been in it since she was 3 months old, it has forced us to be more creative. The more creative you can be with her, the more engaged she gets and the more reinforced she is.”Jessica Whiton
Jessica continues, “It’s science-based, but it’s all based on relationship building, trust and communication. I love that. I love that we can explain our emotions through science, through the way we interact with the animals, on a very black-and-white sort of continuum.”
At the same time that Jessica, like most of the animal care staffers, denies that she has favorites, she admits that Kayavak is one of her favorites. “We know each other so well, like friends who have been through a lot together.”
—Karen Furnweger, web editor
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