Friday, September 13, 2013

Beluga Encounter

While I was at the Shedd Aquarium, I got to experience pretty much the best thing EVER - getting in the water with a Beluga whale. It was awesome and amazing, and actually pretty indescribable. Although, I'll try to describe it for you here and now :).

The Belugas!

These whales look happy ALL THE TIME, they have these soft, squinty eyes and big smiling mouths. Uber-cute! I don't think they ever have a bad day. Every time you look at them, you can't help but smile in return. Instant bad day fix right here.

See, don't they look happy??
Belugas (also called 'white whales') are actually one of the smallest species of whales, ranging from 13 to 20 feet long. Their white coloring and prominent foreheads make them easily identifiable, which totally works for me as I have a hard time describing things. This is easy - they are that small, white whale with a giant forehead :). And they don't have a dorsal fin - no mistaking them for sharks!

Belugas generally live together in small pods and the ones at the Shedd Aquarium are no exception. They have 5 Beluga whales that live together. And get this - their average life span in the wild is 35 to 50 years. That just seems like a long time (even though I know we humans live longer), maybe because I am comparing it to dogs who only live like 15 years. Belugas are social animals and love to play. I swear these guys have a sense of humor :).

Doesn't it look like he is going to bite Ken's butt??? :)

Fun Fact: Unlike most other whales, the beluga has a flexible neck that enables it to turn its head in all directions.

Think the exorcist, haha :). 

The Encounter

Duhn duhn duhn - oh wait that's for sharks. I guess there isn't one for whales *shrugging shoulders*. All joking aside, these whales are pretty big and still dangerous, even though they are 'small' in the whale world. But I still donned on waders (and I mean waders) and climbed down into the Beluga whale habitat. The water was COLD (which I guess make sense since the whales live by the Artic, LOL) but still I wasn't quite expecting that. Luckily our waders were dry suits so I was completely dry and moderately warm underneath.

The first order of business was to let the whale get introduced to us and say hello. Not like you can shake hands and exchange greetings, but he swam down the line of us (there were 4 of us and 1 trainer per whale) and checked us out.

*Disclaimer: You'll have to excuse the quality of these photos as they were taking on my iphone by someone obviously not familiar with an iphone camera :). 
Checking us out and making sure we were of the friendly sort :).

Then we each fed the whale to further establish a rapport. Their primary reinforcers are fish (obviously!) and then we used secondary reinforcers of tongue tickling, clapping, and splashing water in their face (yes they do love this).

I actually didn't mind holding the fish. It wasn't as gross as I thought.
The first time we fed them, we put the fish directly in his mouth.
The second time, we had him suck it from our hand underwater. That felt really cool!
Then we got down to business and we got to cue them for behaviors. The trainer had the whale lay out in front of us and present us with his side so that we could all touch him. They feel pretty cool, it's really hard to describe but they are softer than you think :).

Touching the Beluga whale.
Feeling their 'bump'. It's like an extremely large muscle
and they can actually move it around quite a bit
Then we got to ask for behaviors! The best part :). We asked for hand targets, for blowing on your hand underwater, for a kiss, for a head bump (putting your forehead against theirs), and for him to spit on us. Yes, we asked a whale to spit water on us. I couldn't say no, because really how often are you going to get a chance to have a whale spit on you?!? Beluga's like to spit water so the trainers had to put it on cue so that they could extinguish it and keep it from happening when they weren't expecting it :). Like I said, I'm sure the whales have a sense of humor!

Blowing on my hand underwater.
Hand targeting.
Kissing :)
He's spitting on me. It was so cold!!!
More spitting :)
I really, really liked tickling their tongue. I don't know why, but it was pretty cool. Their tongues are much softer than you would think, kind of like a dog's tongue as opposed to cats.

Tickling the tongue!!! :)

The Take Away

I want a whale. I am pretty sure I could fit a baby one in the bath tub. :) Okay okay, maybe that won't work but it can still be a dream of mine! 

It was really interesting to see how well the whales responded to each of our cues even though they weren't familiar with us and didn't have any kind of bond with us. Yes the real trainer was right there with the whistle and food, but we were still the ones giving the hand signals and asking for the behavior. Plus, while we made every effort to give the hand signals exactly like the trainer shows us, I'm sure there was a lot of variance looking at it from the whale's perspective. They still performed regardless, which tells us that they really, really know what each of those cues means. There wasn't any hesitation and there weren't any wrong responses. It was quite nice to see how confidently they did each behavior and how eager they were to do the next behavior. That's what needs to happen more in dog training!!

More Belugas Please

Here are a few videos from one of the training sessions with an experienced trainer. I really enjoyed these sessions and seeing what some of the 'fun' behaviors entail. The whale looks happy and eager the whole session and seems to really love to interact with the trainer. It looks like a play session :).

What do you think? Do you think your dog's training session looks as fun as these sessions? Does your dog look as happy as the whales? 

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