Explore by Animal

Beluga Calf Update - 9/5

Last week we looked at a typical day in the life of our beluga calf. This week we talk with one of the people who record the calf's activities, minute by minute, around the clock.


Melanie Oerter is a senior trainer in the Marine Mammals department and the lead animal-care specialist in the beluga area. Belugas are her specialty, and since she started working full-time at Shedd in 1997 (she was an intern here in '96), she has been present for all of the beluga births.

Even before Puiji's calf was born, Melanie was busy working with Puiji so that the whale would readily move into a habitat by herself for the birth and allow trainers to collect milk in case the calf had a problem nursing. Now she's involved with Puiji's training sessions to help the whale resume all of the behaviors she was doing before the calf's birth.

Melanie also helped train the small army of interns and temporary staffers who do the bulk of the round-the-clock observations of the calf. Calf-watching requires concentration, alertness and stamina, as well as a thorough grounding in what to look for. "We do 24-hour observations — really nonstop, minute-to-minute observations — from the time the calf is born until it is at least 3 or 4 months old," she says. "Bringing on extra temporary staff and extra interns helped relieve the workload on the full-time staff."

Still, she and the other 20-plus trainers pinch hit so that the designated observers can take well-deserved breaks during their shifts, which are from midnight to 8:15 a.m., 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 12:30 p.m. Two people work a shift so that they can spell each other — usually every 30 to 60 minutes — and assist the full-time staffers with other chores. During the last half-hour or so of each shift, as a new pair of observers takes over, the relieved observation team members leave a summary of the calf's behaviors during their watch on voicemail for Melanie and other staffers. "So even if we're not here, we can call in for an update without bothering the observers," she says.

At 11:15 a.m., Melanie stands at a window in the underwater viewing gallery as the calf, Puiji and Naya, another adult female beluga who helps baby-sit the calf, gracefully cruise around Secluded Bay. The sounds of visitors are muffled by a heavy drape that cordons off the area, and the only illumination comes from the sunlit pool.

While a scheduled observer is stationed at another window, intently watching the whales, Melanie demonstrates what goes on during a shift. The trainer holds a clipboard containing a data sheet — part of a comprehensive behavioral study, or ethogram — as well as a timer. Another timer hangs from a lanyard around her neck and emits a high-pitched "beep-beep" every 60 seconds.

"We have two timers," she explains, "one that tells us at each minute to record an observation, and we also have a stopwatch timer that we use solely to record the time the calf is nursing." She'll click the stopwatch on the second the calf latches onto Mom and click it off the moment he lets go. Because the calf nurses as Mom swims, Melanie might have to sprint from window to window to maintain a clear view of the nursing session, or bout.

"You have to be quick, because you're recording the duration of each bout, which might be a couple of seconds or half a minute. You also have to note which mammary he latched onto, and we look for milk when he lets go. We have to record all that quickly because he might have another nursing bout, even within the same minute. It's pretty fast. When we're training people, one of the biggest challenges is getting used to timing the bouts, getting fast at recording them and observing everything you need to observe." 

It's critical to time the nursing bouts, which occur every 30 to 45 minutes, so that the animal-care staff can gauge whether or not the calf is getting enough nourishment.

To make sure he's processing his food, she also notes when the calf urinates and defecates, the approximate quantity and the color.

During an actual shift, another observer would spell Melanie at 15 and 45 minutes after the hour so she could dash up to the coastal walkway to measure the calf's and Mom's respiration rates for 5 minutes. "It gives us a good baseline of what's normal," she says. "Initially the calf took 30 to 40 breaths in a 5-minute period. Now that he's gotten more efficient at swimming and breathing, that number has dropped to between 10 and 25 breaths per 5 minutes. Mom has a much lower rate, because she has bigger lungs and is more efficient at swimming. She might take anywhere from one or two to 10 to 15 breaths during the 5-minute period. That's pretty normal.

"Keeping track of respiration rates gives us another parameter we can look at to make sure everything is going well."

Finally, when the beeper goes off each minute, Melanie records "snapshot" behaviors. These include who the calf is swimming with, what kind of swimming he's doing (fast, slow, restful drifting), if he's mimicking one of Mom's behaviors, or if he's slipstreaming - catching a ride with Mom by swimming alongside in her wake.

"Slipstreaming is a pretty important thing to look for," the trainer says. "When they swim in that nice tight formation, it shows that they're bonding, and it also helps the calf conserve energy."

At the end of the shift, the numbers are tallied into a time budget for the calf. In addition to creating a record of the calf's development — a minutely detailed baby book — the data is added to a database covering all the beluga calves born among the seven zoological institutions in the North American beluga breeding cooperative. Marine mammals professionals now have a good picture of how a healthy calf looks and behaves as well as indicators as to when a calf is having problems.

The opportunity to sit at a big underwater window and watch every moment in a young beluga's development also provides information on reproductive success that can be applied to help beluga whales in the wild. Little more than the season of calving was known about belugas before zoos and aquariums started seeing, and keeping data on, reproduction.

Melanie has pulled the overnight shift with various beluga calves, and she admits that it can get a little too peaceful — and downright somnolent — at 2 a.m., even with that little alarm clock around her neck going off every minute. "The beep-beep helps you stay alert a little bit," she says, "but we want our observers to be as alert as they can be in the middle of the night. That's one of the main reasons we have two people on a shift." Rather than the drowsy person taking a nap, however, he or she will most likely do some re-energizing clean-up work in the Oceanarium. "We have all kinds of things we can do in the middle of the night to help with animal care," the trainer says.

The observers do have a radio and CD player to keep them company as well as walkie-talkies to communicate with each other and the building operations staff. Melanie says that she doesn't have any favorite music to stay awake by but instead relies on the excitement of watching the calf to keep her alert.

She notices that Puiji's calf has some characteristics that set him apart from the two other calves that she has observed, Kayavak and Qannik. "He is very independent," she says. "Usually a calf spends about 90 percent of its time with Mom. Although Puiji bonded with him right away, their association times were down around 70 percent, and that concerned us.

"Then we came to believe that, because Secluded Bay has been her home since 1991, Puiji has a very high comfort level in this familiar environment. Puiji is a great mom, and she is with the calf, I think, when she feels like she needs to be. When the calf is hungry, he comes to Mom and they nurse. When they're resting, they spend a lot of time together. And when we introduce something new into the habitat, their association times go way up — to 90 percent, in fact — so he really does see Mom as his protector and as a refuge from whatever else might be going on."

Melanie is most delighted by the diligence the little beluga shows in mimicking Mom's behaviors. "With swimming upside down, for instance, we saw him go through the uncoordinated phase of not quite being able to stay upside down to swim with Mom when she was upside down. Then he finally figured it out and for the next few days he spent most of his time swimming upside down.

"Our observation crew is pretty in tune to what he's learning and what's new for him," she continues. In their end-of-shift summaries, she says, they'll leave messages like, "He's had an 'aha' moment — like 'I got this!' "

 That's the science and the art of calf observations.


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