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Beluga Calf Update - 10/5

We had a 50 percent chance of being right. The marine mammal trainers who swore they saw evidence that the calf is a male were balanced by those who adamantly maintained that the calf is a female. Rather than call the bouncy, bright-eyed beluga baby the impersonal “it,” we went with the first opinion and referred to the calf with masculine personal pronouns.

Puiji's calf swims to Lisa Takaki for a head rub.

Of course, we also had a 50 percent chance of being wrong

An exam on Tuesday was definitive… Puiji’s calf is a GIRL!

While the whales can figure out who’s who for pairing up, they don’t give us humans too many clues. Their sex organs are tucked inside their bodies, although the males occasionally display. To make matters more confusing, both males and females have recessed but visible teats, although only the females’ are associated with functional mammary glands. “So it’s difficult to be 100 percent certain of a calf’s sex until we do a routine physical,” said Ken Ramirez, our v.p. of animal collections and training.

As Puiji’s calf nears 3 months old, the marine mammal and animal health staffers agreed that it was time for the little beluga’s first physical. Because the calf has been so healthy, there was no immediate need to handle her and perhaps make her leery of her human caregivers. The trainers have regularly spent time in the water with Puiji and her calf, interacting with Mom while the little whale watched, got accustomed to – and even curious about – the divers, and figured out that these gangly creatures with funny flukes and weird blowholes were okay.

“She comes over to the trainers’ island during many of Mom’s sessions, and we’ve been able to rub her head and tickle her tongue,” Ken said.

Tuesday evening the calf had a routine, 20-minute wellness exam. “Since the calf is strong and looking good, we felt that this was the best time to actually weigh her, get a blood sample and determine the gender,” Ken said. “This allows us to have good baseline information on record for a healthy calf.”

At 11 weeks, the calf is just shy of 6 feet long and weighs a hefty 259 lbs. That’s about a foot longer and more than 125 pounds heavier than Ken’s practiced estimate of the calf at birth. He said that the calf will continue to nurse for many more months and will weigh at least 500 pounds – and maybe 600! – by the time she’s a year old.

“Because of her rapid growth,” Ken continued, “the calf is sloughing her skin in huge sheets. It makes her look very ragged, but it’s normal.”

During this itchy, twitchy sloughing time, the calf has a sympathetic friend in Naya, the companion beluga who often baby-sits her. “One of Naya’s favorite games is to swim over to the calf and help pull off the loose skin,” Ken said. Naya spends hours playing with large pieces of slough, and the calf – always a mimic – picked up the activity, tossing around her outgrown skin as if to demonstrate that she’s on to bigger and better things.

Now that we’re sure that it’s “she,” watch this page for details on the upcoming contest to name Puiji’s calf.


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