As a young child, I remember watching an IMAX film about whales, and for about a week thereafter I fantasized about becoming a marine biologist. Despite my almost near-encounter as a marine scientist, I never seemed to develop any interest in or affection for beluga whales–until a recent visit to Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium.
Beluga Whales at Shedd Aquarium
As a guest of the aquarium, I had the unique opportunity to watch a behind-the-scenes training session with several Shedd trainers as they worked with some of the beluga family. I admit, the beluga’s natural curiosity, their permanently upturned mouths (which make it look like they’re always smiling), and their slightly mischievous tendencies had me plotting ways I could keep my bathtub filled with arctic-cold water, so I could bring one home.
The belugas are found in Shedd’s Abbott Oceanarium, where they share their space with some equally adorable Pacific White-sided Dolphins, sea otters and sea lions, including Cruz, a blind sea lion rescued from Santa Cruz, Calif. Yes, that’s a whole lot of cute happening in just one area of the aquarium.
If you’d like to go beyond the standard viewing experience, Shedd offers a number of ways to get up close and personal:
Shedd Aquatic Show
Learn how the beluga whales, as well as the dolphins, sea lions and even a few dogs, are cared for by the trainers at Shedd in an arena-style show, known as “One World: Make a Difference.” This separately ticketed event, which is offered several times a day, demonstrates how the animals at Shedd are trained using positive reinforcement and how guests can utilizes those same techniques when training their pets at home.
Don some waders and join aquarium trainers in the water, as they teach you about beluga training and care. Standing on an underwater ledge, you’ll come face to face with the belugas, and will be able to touch them and try a few training techniques of your own. Each 90-minute session is limited to 6 people, and costs $25o per person (with a discount for members.) No photography is allowed, but you’ll be provided a picture of your session after its over.
Beluga Encounter Proposal Experience
If you love beluga whales as much as you love your finance, the Beluga Encounter Proposal Experience might be the perfect way to pop the question. An expanded version of the Beluga Encounter, the proposal experience provides a private poolside moment, complete with photographer to capture this once-in-a-lifetime proposal. A package upgrade even provides a private table overlooking the Oceanarium, complete with strawberries and champagne. The proposal experience is available on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 10 a.m., and costs $500 per couple.
To gain a deeper understanding of beluga whales (and other marine life) in their natural habitat, adventurers can travel with aquarium scientists and staff on a variety of excursions every year.
Shedd Adventures offers a custom-designed series of travel programs to view marine life such as beluga whales, sea turtles and reef fish in their natural wild habitats.
From July 26-Aug. 3, explorers can join Dr. Bill Van Bonn, vice president, animal health at Shedd Aquarium for an in-depth exploration of beluga whales in Churchill, Manitoba. The trip begins in Winnipeg and crosses the prairies of Manitoba on board the Hudson Bay passenger train.
In Churchill, gateway to the Arctic, participants can enjoy four days of exploration, including two Zodiac trips to see belugas in the Churchill River. More than 3,000 of these white whales summer in the region, and the motorized rafts puts travelers at eye level with them. An onboard hydrophone allows guests to learn why belugas are called canaries of the sea.
The excursion starts from $4,795 per person and includes round-trip transportation between Winnipeg and Churchill, accommodations, meals, Natural Habitat Adventure expedition leaders and assistants, Shedd guide Dr. Bill Van Bonn, entrance fees, and one complimentary sponsor-level Shedd Aquarium membership per household.
More Shedd Aquarium
Despite my own fascination and newfound love of beluga whales, it is important to note that the Abbott Oceanarium is just one exhibit in a facility filled with amazing discoveries.
In fact, while the Abbott Oceanarium explores the marine life of the Pacific Northwest, part of Shedd’s greater mission is supporting conservation efforts that preserve and protect the Great Lakes. Last year, Shedd opened a new exhibit, “At Home on the Great Lakes,” which features more than 60 Great Lakes species, including the notorious silver and bighead carp, known collectively as Asian carp.
Shedd focuses on four key Great Lakes issues: awareness of ecological separation, solution-oriented research, accelerated habitat restoration, and protecting and promoting native wildlife.
In total, the aquarium houses more than 32,000 residents, including penguins, jelly fish, sea stars, sea turtles, moray eels, parrotfish and sharks, to name a very few.