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Beluga Calf Update - 1/23

“It seems like I just watched her being born and now she’s 6 months old!” marveled a Marine Mammals Department staff member, summing up what everyone at Shedd has felt as Bella, Puiji’s calf, marked her half-year milestone on Jan. 17.

Bella, in the foreground, is eager for a tongue tickle.

Since our last update in December, Bella's gotten a little bigger and a little heavier, like a typical growing toddler (albeit it one with baby fat several inches thick). She confidently sails around Secluded Bay, with or without Mom, and she's met all the members of Shedd's beluga group, including her dad, 13-foot, 1,800-pound Naluark.

"His introduction to her was not as a father, but as another animal in the social group," says Ken Ramirez, Shedd's VP of animal collections and training.

"Among belugas," he continues, "there is no father-offspring relationship. Bella sees him as a new creature that's entered the habitat." At a mere 6 feet and somewhat more than 300 pounds, little Bella is quite a contrast to Naluark as they swim together. While the male is curious about the calf, he is gentle with her and has been part of her group for several weeks.

Bella has also met the other two whales born at Shedd, Kayavak, 7, and Qannik, 6, as well as Qannik's mother, Mauyak.

Mauyak was the last beluga to be introduced to Bella because she is such a dominant whale in the social group. "There's no question that Mauyak and Puiji tend to be competitive," says Ken. "They get along okay, but they're not the best of friends."

Bella and Mauyak spent an uneventful half-day together. While Bella is too old to be "stolen" by Mauyak — something dominant females sometimes do with other whales' babies in the wild — trainers were watchful for any sign of aggression toward the calf.

"We'll manage things carefully until Bella gets a little bit older and we're sure she can handle herself," Ken says. The Marine Mammals staffers went through the same process with Kayavak, who still gets chased by Mauyak — and nimbly outmaneuvers her. While always looking out for the safety of the younger members of the beluga group, Ken also has to ensure that the whales experience the full range of normal social interactions and learn beluga etiquette, the same as they would in the wild.

Bella will get many new lessons in beluga behavior as the breeding season heats up in February and March. Another reason Naluark is in the calf's group right now is to give him access to her constant companions, Mom and Naya. "She's going to experience a breeding season, and it will teach her about social dynamics in a way she hasn't seen before," says Ken. "A lot of what's happening for Bella over the next several months is just experiencing life."

The calf is also starting to interact with the trainers and with the divers who clean her pool.

During Mom's training sessions, Bella regularly presents herself, mouth open, to have her tongue tickled. Trainers continue to pop fish into her mouth, but she still considers these slippery things toys rather than food.

She's also showing increased curiosity about the divers. "Now that our relationship is building with her on land," Ken says, "she's beginning to make associations and come over to us during dives."

Be sure to visit Bella soon. You never know who else will be in the pool with her or what she'll be doing. Ken says, "We're trying to replicate the normal changing social structure of a beluga group, keeping Naya and Puiji consistent in her life while other animals might come and go."


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