As the beluga whalesglide in, around, out of and back into their Abbott Oceanariumhabitats, a swirl of long white shapes, you might wonder, “How many whales am I actually seeing? How do the trainers tell them apart?”
With a few key characteristics and enough whales within view to make comparisons, you can begin to figure out who’s whom among Shedd’s eight belugas and even get some insights into their social relationships.
Aurek is the newest beluga and the biggest. In fact, he's the biggest animal at the aquarium. The 14-year-old, 14-foot, 2,100-pound whale arrived at Shedd from Georgia Aquarium in September. Between his size and a distinctive gray smudge across the top of his head, just behind his blowhole, he should be easy to spot. We are just getting to know him.
Beethoven is the second largest. At 14 feet and 1,800 pounds, the 25-year-old beluga is still standout big. He’s also the snowy whitest of the whales, with just a few gray dots and dashes splashed along his sides like Morse code.
Like the other belugas, Beethoven squirts water from his mouth, varying in force from a dribble to a drenching. This natural behavior, often used to uncover crustaceans in the sandy seafloor in the wild, is reinforced by the trainers, so you might see him do a jump with a squirt during an aquatic presentation. Trainer Angie Soliai notes, “He also squirts during his breaches”—when the whale leaps straight up and crashes backward into the water.
Long-time members and friends of the aquarium might remember “little” Naya, who was 3 years old and weighed about 700 pounds when she arrived at Shedd in 1992. She is the largest female now, and third-largest beluga, at 12 feet 3 inches and 1,600 pounds. She has rippling rolls of extra blubber, called rails, running the length of her sides, making her easy to identify either underwater or from the coastal walkway.
Naya (NYE-ah) is one of several belugas at Shedd whose names come from the language of the Inuit, the indigenous people of the Canadian Arctic, where belugas are most populous. Her name means “little sister of a male.”
She is one of the most playful of the adult females, but she’s also incredibly responsible. She has helped the other females care for their calves, from babysitting while mom takes a break to producing milk to help nurse an infant. This kind of care for an unrelated young animal is called alloparenting, and it’s been observed in a number of cetacean species. Naya often pairs up with Shedd’s youngest beluga, 5-year-old Kimalu, for swimming and socializing.
Kimalu (KEE-mah-LOO), whose name means “something or someone special” in the Inuit language, was born at Shedd on Aug. 27, 2012. She has dimples on her back, which is how the trainers identify her. Another defining field mark is her light gray skin. Calves are medium to dark gray at birth, and their skin lightens as they mature.
As the youngest beluga, she is also still the shortest, but not by much. At 10 feet 2 inches, she’s almost 2 feet longer than she was in 2015—similar to a teenager experiencing a growth spurt.
“Kimalu really engages with new training. She’s also very social, being a young animal. In the last year and a half, since being weaned, she has become more independent. She’s finding a new space within the social hierarchy of the group.”Angie Soliai, marine mammals trainer
Mauyak, who is Kimalu’s mother, has been at Shedd since 1997. Her name, pronounced MY-ack, means “soft snow” in the Inuit language. Mauyak, 36, is mid-sized among the belugas: 11 feet long and 1,500 pounds. Gray streaks along her off-white sides make her easier to identify.
Outside of sessions, Mauyak is frequently spotted spyhopping, or popping her head out of the water, and squirting, Angie says. You might also see the playful whale rubbing her body on a giant soccer ball or pushing toys around on her melon or back. Listen for her too. All of the belugas share an extraordinary repertoire of vocalizations, including chirps, squeals and whistles, which earned this species the old-time mariners’ nickname of “canaries of the sea.” Mauyak does an especially fine, deep foghorn.
Mauyak has proven herself to be a diligent, protective mother; Kimalu is her third calf born at Shedd. Her experience shows in how well she has expertly guided her calves through their critical milestones. She and Kimalu still spend time swimming together, although no more than they do with any of the other whales. While Shedd’s beluga population has a fluid social structure, Mauyak regularly pairs up with Beethoven for swimming. Much of what we know about beluga social structure has been learned by observing them at facilities like Shedd.
Kayavak was born at Shedd on Aug. 3, 1999, making her the first beluga calf Chicagoans had the privilege of watching grow up. Today she is the third-oldest female in the beluga group. Another mid-sized whale, she is 11 feet 10 inches and 1,400 pounds. Look for the small white swoosh on her pale gray back between her blowhole and dorsal ridge.
Her name, pronounced KAH-ya-vok, is the Inuit word for “singing game that creates beautiful soft echoes.” True to her name, Kayavak often mimicks the sounds around her, a natural talent among beluga whales.
The whale you might most often see pairing up with Kayavak is 11-year-old Bella. She’s moving into mid-sized range, at 10 feet 6 inches and 1,200 pounds. She’s young enough to still have gray skin, although she’s not as dark as Kimalu, which should help you identify both of them. If you need more clues, Bella has a prominent melon, or forehead, and a white spot on her right side.
Bella was born seconds before the aquarium closed for the day on July 17, 2006. In addition to hitting all her milestones, in her first half-hour of life the precocious calf mastered her coordination in the water, negotiating the pool’s rockwork and learning how to dive and hold her breath, an important first step in being able to nurse.
While the beluga “smile” is strictly a facial structure, it really suits Bella. From the time she was a calf, she has been playful and interactive with the trainers as well as with the other whales. A much younger Bella used to tag after then-teenaged Kayavak like an adoring kid sister. (They are not related.) The relationship seems to have matured as Bella and Kayavak did.
“Bella still likes to play the tail game,” says Angie. “She’ll get a body rub and swim out until you can reach her tail and rub her tail down.”
Grayson joined the Shedd beluga population in February 2016. Right now the 10-year-old male is medium-sized at 11 feet and 1,200 pounds, but he’s still growing. In fact, he’s gained 130 pounds since he arrived. He is lighter than the adult females, with some mottled skin on his melon.
Maris says, “As a younger male coming into the group, Grayson spent the last year working out his spot in the social hierarchy and establishing social bonds with the other animals.”
“His training is coming along great,” Angie adds, “and he’s acclimating well. Moving to Shedd provided him with environmental and social changes that I think he likes. He’s adjusting well to having access to three or four pools and having changing social groups. He’s a lot of fun to work with.”
“We believe that because the trainers make the learning process fun and exciting, Grayson is engaged by that. He still has adventures to go on and new behaviors to tackle and learn.”Steve Aibel, senior director of marine mammals
We hope this introduction to Shedd’s beluga whales helps you better connect with them as individuals and as a dynamic group. On your next visit, try to identify the whales using their size, markings and social pairings.
“We’re lucky at Shedd to have as large a population as we do,” says Maris.
Steve adds, “The structure and social fluidity of this group mirrors what you would see in a healthy population in the wild. We have some fully mature females, a fully mature male, then a core of animals in the middle that are past adolescence but not fully mature, and finally young animals fitting into niches within the culture. And the close associations can change daily. That’s what happens in the ocean, and that’s what happens at Shedd.”
You can get closer to beluga whales at Shedd Aquarium than you can on a whale-watching trip—face-to-face, in fact, at the underwater viewing area. The ability to closely observe and work with the belugas has enabled our scientists to gain knowledge about them that can be used to understand and protect beluga whales everywhere. Shedd’s belugas are ambassadors for their species, sparking compassion, curiosity and conservation.
―Karen Furnweger, web editor