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Beluga Calf Update - 08/15

Secluded Bay may be closed right now to all but animal-care staffers, but Puiji's calf, who turns a month old this week, isn't lacking for new and interesting experiences with people and other animals.

Puiji's curious calf checks out a diver for the first time.

When the calf was a mere 3 days old, divers in the Marine Mammals Department, dubbed the "algae patrol," entered the waters of Secluded Bay to do routine cleaning. Mom came right over to visit with her human friends while the calf peeked at them from the safety of her back. But the message the calf got from Mom's behavior was that these strange-looking creatures are okay.

The divers go in several times a day to accustom the calf to their presence as well as to clean, and last week the calf broke away from swimming with Mom to get face-to-face with the divers. "It was really cool seeing the calf that close to us," says Ken Ramirez, Shedd's v.p. of animal collections and training. "We had to restrain ourselves from touching him. We want these interactions to be positive experiences. Eventually, of course, we will be touching the calf, but right now we don't want to frighten him. Mom was perfectly comfortable letting him follow us around in the water, and the calf's curiosity is a good sign that he's beginning to see us as a positive thing."

Ken calls encounters like this "passive training." He purposely sets up new situations for the calf in a way that allows Puiji to demonstrate the desired behavior and, he hopes, encourages the calf to participate and mimic Mom. Passive training can include watching Mom play with toys, following her into a new habitat and meeting the other belugas.

The little calf has been aware of, and curious about, the gaggle of belugas rubbernecking for a look at him through the mesh gate that separates Secluded Bay from Misty Passage. (Belugas are the only whales you will ever see rubbernecking because they're the only cetaceans with flexible neck vertebrae.) Last Friday, he got to meet one of them.

After careful planning by the marine mammals staffers, Naya, a 17-year-old female, was given access to Secluded Bay through another gate that connects with the Oceanarium's veterinary pool.

"Naya is a great companion animal," says Ken. "She has been a companion of Puiji's for many, many years, and the two get along well." Naya was also a good choice because she ranks below Puiji in the dominance order of the beluga group, so Ken wasn't worried that Naya would try to take the calf away from Puiji or harm the calf - a not-unheard-of occurrence in the wild. And Naya is good with kids - she spent a lot of time "babysitting" two other Shedd belugas, Kayavak and Qannik, when they were calves.

The independent little calf was suddenly shy with this stranger, and he clung to his mother's for hours at a time. Meanwhile, respectful of Puiji and bound by beluga social behavior, Naya seemed uncertain about how close she could get to the calf.

At one point, however, the calf approached Naya's tail, which startled the adult whale and set off an interesting chain reaction. Naya shot back into the vet pool, which startled the calf, which caused Puiji to vocalize, which jolted the calf even more and sent him bolting into the vet pool behind Naya.

"He was only in there about 3 seconds when he realized that he had gone the wrong way with the wrong animal," Ken says with amusement. "He came right back out and glued himself to Mom's side for the rest of the day."

For his efforts, Ken got two milestones for the price of one: The calf has begun the socialization process with a beluga other than his mom, and he has ventured into a new habitat - something Ken had been trying to encourage the calf to do with Puiji for about two weeks. "It happened by accident, but he did swim into another pool."

Of course, the calf's biggest milestone this week happens on Aug. 17. That's when he turns a month old. "We're really pleased with his progress so far," says Ken. Check back next Tuesday for the continuing adventures of Puiji's calf!



You can see Bella, her mom and her new beluga friends in the underwater viewing gallery of the Oceanarium.

Click here to see a Flash-based slide show of Bella. (Pop-up window, Flash Player 8 req.)

You can read all of the previous updates at the links below.

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