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Beluga Calf Update - 8/8

Ken Ramirez generously allowed the Website calf correspondent to watch a feeding session with Mom Puiji on Friday. While Puiji gulped down a bucket's worth of fish, her calf played, and Brenna Hernandez, our staff photographer, documented it all.

Puiji's calf practices spyhopping.

Ken, of course, is our v.p. of animal collections and training, and the go-to guy for everything about the marine mammals. Maybe you saw him on TV last week, when Shedd invited local and national news crews in for their first look at Puiji's calf. Ken is gradually introducing the calf to new experiences, from toys in the habitat to small groups of people in the underwater viewing gallery, while sheltering him from disturbances that might interrupt nursing or other important behaviors, or even frighten the little beluga. That's why Secluded Bay remains closed to the public as well as to Shedd staff members and volunteers who are not immediately involved in the calf's care.

So it was a special treat to stand on the walkway at Secluded Bay and watch the calf and his mom. As they circled slowly in the habitat, each time Puiji surfaced to take a breath, the calf followed a few seconds later. The little beluga makes the same low-pitched "pugh" as he exhales through his blowhole as Mom does, although it's softer. Ken is impressed with the calf's strong breathing. Later on the little whale further demonstrated his lungpower with a short but piercing series of squeals.

From the trainer's island, senior trainer Maris Muzzy led Puiji through a typical session, having her open her mouth for an exam, spyhop, spin (at beluga speed — slow) and stretch out horizontally at the surface, as the whale would do for a blood test or an ultrasound exam. After each behavior, Maris dropped fish after fish into Puiji's mouth.

Meanwhile, the calf was midpool, trying to mimic some of the things Mom was doing. He's currently working on hanging vertically in the water, as he sees Mom do when she stations at the island. When Mom spyhopped, or raised herself out of the water, he popped up as far as he could — getting his head above the surface — before rolling over. "He just doesn't have the coordination yet," says Ken.

But the little beluga kept practicing. Sometimes as he popped up, he spit a mouthful of water. Belugas will blow water into the sandy sea floor to uncover bottom-dwelling prey. Puiji, however, makes a game of projecting a mouthful of water at staff members' heads. She never misses. We can only guess how proficient the playful calf will become at this behavior.

During the round-the-clock monitoring, staffers have also observed the calf swimming on his side and putting a pec fin in the air as if he were waving hello. If you've watched a beluga training session, you've probably seen Puiji do that — and so has the little "copycalf."

"These are great signs," says Ken. "The calf's eagerness to mimic Mom's behaviors are a good indication that he'll learn from us when he gets a little older.

When Mom finished the session, the calf zoomed back to her side but soon went off on his own again. He spends about 80 percent of his time with Mom. The rest of the time he explores, looks through a mesh gate at the other belugas in an adjoining pool and plays games that he makes up.

On Friday, Ken's staff introduced an enrichment item — animal-behavior talk for a toy — into the Secluded Bay habitat. Called a "rub line," it's a super-thick rope — the kind used to tie up ocean liners — that has been knotted every few feet and hangs in the pool from a large, bright orange buoy. It's one of Puiji's favorites, and it's also a safe first toy for the calf. Puiji went over to it immediately and began rubbing against it and swimming around with it on her tail.

"The calf watched how Mom interacted with it, and he began mimicking what she did," says Ken. "He circled around it the way she did, he put his body in the same position that she did, in fact, he did everything EXCEPT actually touch the toy." But it's a good sign that the calf accepted the presence of something new in the habitat. He has lots of time to work up the courage to play with the new toy.

Check back next Tuesday for more updates!


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