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The Shedd Aquarium family welcomed an energetic beluga whale calf after first-time mother Bella gave birth on Friday, August 21 at 8:42 p.m. Animal care and veterinary staff were also able to determine that the calf is male.

The dark gray new arrival is 139 pounds and measures 5’3” in length. The wrinkles on the calf’s sides, called fetal folds, are the result of being curled in mom’s womb and will smooth out in a few weeks as this little calf quickly grows.

“As the calf swam to the surface and took its first breath, it brought with it the palpable hope of new life and fresh beginnings—something we all appreciate,” said Dr. Bridget Coughlin, president and CEO of Shedd Aquarium. “We at Shedd Aquarium continue to be humbled by the opportunity we have to share this excitement with the public and create meaningful moments of wonder and learning through the aquatic animal world.”

A circular graphic reading "It's Bella's calf! Born August 21, 2020, Weight 139 pounds, Length 5 feet 3 inches."
Trainers in Shedd's underwater viewing gallery observe pregnant beluga whale Bella.

First-time mother

This is 14-year-old Bella’s first calf—Bella was also born here at the aquarium on July 17, 2006. She is a first-time mother, and current scientific knowledge of belugas and dolphins is that first-time mothers often experience a higher calf mortality rate. Observing and scientifically documenting calf interactions is extremely valuable to further understanding the challenges and successes associated with the species and first-time births, making data collection of the growing calf even more critical. The animal care team remains cautiously optimistic and will continue around-the-clock monitoring to ensure that mom and calf have all the support that they need.

“Beluga gestation is more than a year long, and we used this time for careful preparations and planning,” said Peggy Sloan, chief animal operations officer at Shedd Aquarium. “Our animal care team is thrilled and grateful for this calf’s healthy and successful arrival. The birth is a testament to our commitment to belugas across the globe, as we are even better positioned to contribute to rescue efforts, policy-making and research meant to safeguard belugas in need.”

A tiny grey beluga calf is seen swimming just beneath the water's surface.

An atypical headfirst birth

Typically, beluga calves are born flukes-first. This is an adaptation that allows the tail to uncurl and stiffen in the 50- to 55-degree water during labor. By the time the head pops out, the air-breathing whale is equipped to power itself to the surface to take its first breath. After nearly 15 hours of labor, Bella’s calf arrived headfirst. Despite this, the calf immediately powered itself to the surface.

“As the calf swam to the surface and took its first breath, it brought with it the palpable hope of new life and fresh beginnings—something we all appreciate.”

Dr. Bridget Coughlin, president and CEO of Shedd Aquarium

Around-the-clock observation

As is often the case in the days following delivery, the calf is not yet independently nursing. The care team is in the water every three hours, assisting with feeding the calf.

Animal care staffers are observing the pair around the clock, recording every minute-by-minute activity of mom and calf and monitoring for critical milestones. The next important milestone for the calf to reach is increased efficiency at nursing and weight gain. Over the next several days, animal care team will pay close care and attention as mom and calf reach several other important developmental landmarks, including bonding and swimming together.

A Shedd trainer wearing a face mask gently guides a tiny beluga calf in the water.

Advancing care at Shedd, field research and rescues

Births are difficult to observe in the wild and much is still unknown about beluga whale reproduction. Most of what we do know comes from studying belugas in aquariums like Shedd, where staff scientists can readily observe and collect data on these animals. Documentation of Bella’s gestation, delivery and postnatal care and the calf’s development add valuable insights into a growing body of information that is shared not just with our zoological partners but also with field biologists, researchers, conservationists and scientist around the globe. As Bella is a first-time mother, observing her interactions with her calf is just as important to our understanding of first-time mothers as the data we are collecting on the growing calf.

Understanding critical neonatal development can help Shedd’s partners deepen their knowledge of conservation, garnering more insights on how pollution and human activity such as shipping could be detrimental to the reproduction and recovery of the critically endangered beluga population in the St. Lawrence River.

Caring for pregnant cetaceans and calves at the aquarium also strengthens the skills necessary for Shedd's Animal Response Teamto collaborate in rescue, rehabilitation and release efforts. In 2018, Shedd joined a team of experts in Alaska to provide intensive care to a stranded newborn beluga calf that was part of a critically endangered population of belugas in Cook Inlet.

A tiny beluga calf lifts its head from the water to breathe.

About beluga whales

Beluga whales are found in the Arctic and the circumpolar waters of North America, Russia and Greenland. Belugas can be easily recognized by their white color, the absence of a dorsal fin, attributable to their habitat, and the distinctive rounded “melon,” the echolocation organ at the front of the head. Adult beluga whales can grow up to 18 feet long and weigh more than 3,000 pounds. Like other toothed whales, belugas use sounds and echolocation for navigation, to find breathing holes in the ice and to hunt in dark or turbid waters.

Time for bonding

To give Bella and her calf the best care, they will not be immediately viewable by the public to ensure they have the time they need for peaceful bonding and nursing. In the meantime, guests can come eye-to-eye with sea otters, jellies, sharks and thousands of fish species and much more throughout the aquarium.

Updates will also be posted on our website, Facebook page and Twitter feed. Shedd is looking forward to two more special upcoming deliveries, from Naya the beluga and Katrl the Pacific white-sided dolphin.