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Beluga Calf Update - 8/22

On Thursday, Aug. 17, we celebrated Puiji's calf's one-month birthday. By this time, the calf has achieved many of the most important milestones for survival, so the one-month mark is a major milestone itself and something to get excited about!

No one served cake or sang, but for 90 minutes, Ken Ramirez, Shedd's v.p. of animal collections and training, did invite staffers and volunteers down to Secluded Bay's underwater viewing area for a rare visit with the calf.

All the while we were there, a trainer diligently observed the calf and recorded his behavior, minute-by-minute, on a data sheet. This ongoing work reminded us of why it's important for Secluded Bay to remain closed during the first few months of the calf's life.

Watching the calf all day has got to be a great job. We saw him nurse, swim upside down, scratch his back on the pool bottom, zoom around and cruise peacefully between his mom and Naya.

If you remember from last week, Naya, a 17-year-old female beluga, has joined Puiji and the calf in Secluded Bay. Naya is one of Puiji's favorite companions in Shedd's beluga group, and all three whales are getting along great. And each is benefiting from this new mix.

Most importantly, the calf is getting his first lesson in socialization. The earlier he mixes with animals other than Mom, the easier it will be for him to integrate into the group later. Besides that, being exposed to new things, whether it's another whale, a toy, or a diver, develops his adaptability so that he becomes comfortable with change early on.

Having Naya in the pool also allows Puiji some well-deserved breaks. The calf spends about 80 percent of his time with Mom and about 20 percent of his time with his new "Auntie Naya." While Puiji swims into the adjacent medical pool to play, vocalize, or just plain rest, Naya is an attentive babysitter.

Thursday afternoon, Puiji retired to the medical pool for several minutes, so Naya did laps in Secluded Bay with the calf. After a few minutes, on each pass of the channel to the med pool, Naya slowed and tilted her head to look in, apparently wondering just when Puiji was going to return. Finally, Naya vocalized at the entrance, and Puiji popped back out. Ken, admitting to a little anthropomorphism, describes Naya as a "nervous babysitter." She certainly takes this responsibility seriously!

Naya's experiences with the calf (as well as with Kayavak and Qannik when they were little) are building her own mothering skills for the time when she might have her own calf.

Both Puiji and Naya have worked hard to entice, coerce and even trick the calf into entering the channel that leads from Secluded Bay to the medical pool. The calf unintentionally swam in there — and quickly swam out — on the day Naya was introduced. But each time Puiji tried to get him to follow her in, he veered off at the entrance "as if he were repelled by an invisible force field," jokes Ken. He goes on to explain that the calf is just obeying his instincts. Because belugas must surface every few minutes to breathe, they won't swim into dark channels or caves where they sense there isn't air.

Puiji wants the calf to join her in the medical pool because it's one of her favorite places. And Ken wants to see the calf expand his horizons.

Thursday was the first time that the gate to the medical pool was opened since Naya's introduction. In the afternoon, after all three whales had been swimming in formation for a few minutes, Puiji and Naya headed into the med pool, trying to get the calf to follow. As usual, he did a U-turn at the entrance, and Naya soon returned to Secluded Bay, unable to leave the calf unattended. (Ken points out that Puiji is a doting mom, but she knows by now that the calf is safe by himself while she takes a short break.)

Naya's tactics are visibly different from Puiji's. Mom swims in and hopes that the calf will follow. Naya often lingers just inside the channel, as if to show the calf that it's okay in there. On Thursday, over the course of about four hours, patient Naya finally coaxed the calf in. He made several tentative forays, lasting 30 to 35 seconds apiece, but at last he seemed comfortable swimming into the med pool. "Another really important milestone has been reached," says Ken.
With the calf a month old and going strong, Ken and rest of the marine mammals staff are considering when to reopen Secluded Bay so YOU can see Puiji's calf firsthand. And the aquarium is making plans for a naming contest for the little guy (or is the calf a little girl?). Check back next week for more news!

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