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Beluga Calf Update - 7/17

It's a boy! Just seconds before closing time on Monday, July 17, Shedd celebrated the arrival of its newest beluga whale. The robust male calf and his mom, Puiji (poo-EE-jee), are doing fine.

"I'm ecstatic about how this little calf looks," Shedd's vice president of marine mammals and animal training, Ken Ramirez, told the elated, if exhausted, group of marine mammals staffers monitoring the birth from the Oceanarium's underwater viewing gallery.

Since Saturday, the marine mammals and animal health crews had been on a yellow alert—a close observation for signs of labor. At 11:25 Monday morning, they went to a red alert—labor happening!—when tiny tail flukes emerged from Puiji's birth canal. By 11:55, the delivery had advanced to flukes and tail section. Then trainers and veterinary staffers, stationed in the gallery and poolside in Secluded Bay, watched and waited for six more hours as Puiji contracted, pushing the calf out a little more, and then relaxed, when the calf's body receded a bit.

With a final hard push by Puiji at 6 p.m., the calf popped out and energetically swam to the surface. He inhaled his first breath, and his observers exhaled a sigh of relief at this first essential milestone. Then everyone cheered!

"His eyes were open, and he took strong breaths," said Dr. Bill Van Bonn, senior director for animal health. "He's a fast learner, too," the veterinarian added. "When whales are born, they don't know anything — including how to swim." The calf quickly bonded with his attentive mother and fell into slipstreaming by her side—the second and third critical milestones.

In his first half hour, he also mastered coordination in the water, started searching along his mom's body to nurse, and was learning how to avoid the sides of the pool and the rockwork, although Puiji was quick to steer him away from any potential collisions. "Puiji is being a great mom," Van Bonn said.

The calf also had to figure out how to dive—by releasing air through his blowhole—to get to his mother's underside to nurse. But by 6:45 the next morning, he had his first taste of Puiji's high-fat, high-protein milk, and by the time he was a full day old, he was nursing about every half hour.

"This is a delicate time," said Van Bonn, "but the calf is doing all the right things, Puiji is doing all the right things, and the timeframe in which we expect things to happen is right on track."

For weeks to come, staff members will monitor the calf around the clock, recording every behavior and staying alert for any problems.
The five other belugas are watching, too. Gathered in Misty Passage for a training session, they took turns at the gate that separates them from Puiji and the calf in Secluded Bay. Naluark, the calf's sire, and Mauyak, the last female to have a successful birth, were especially curious—and perhaps a little cautious—about this sudden addition to the beluga group, said trainer JohnRex Mitchell.

While the steel gray calf looks small next to his white mom, Ramirez estimated his length at 5½ feet and put his weight at about 125 pounds.

"What a little peanut!" murmured one of the trainers.

Read what the Chicago Tribune (82Kb PDF) and the Chicago Sun-Times (3.4 Mb PDF) had to say about the birth.


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