Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Hands-on with narwhal's closest relative

This cute photograph of a beluga whale pushing its face up against the glass at an aquarium has been making the rounds on the Internet, including numerous postings on Facebook and Twitter, after first appearing in several newspapers in the United Kingdom last week.  And it reminded me of my hands-on experience with a beluga at Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut last year. 
The beluga is the narwhal’s closest relative – the two species are the only members of the Monodontidae family of small toothed whales – and it is not uncommon to see both of them in the same general vicinity in the eastern Canadian Arctic.  While they are approximately the same size, they are nonetheless strikingly different.  Belugas are slow swimmers and shallow divers that prefer inshore waters where their reputation for being particularly “talkative” led to their common nickname, the sea canary.  As adults they have completely white skin, “smiling” lips, a full set of teeth, a fatty and oily melon on their foreheads, and can turn their head, making belugas anatomically unique.
The aquarium’s beluga trainer brought me waist deep into the water at the back of the beluga exhibit, and I spent the next 30 minutes with a whale named Naku, an 11-year-old, 1,350 pound smiling beluga.  I got to put my hand in her mouth and touch her conical teeth, pat her tongue – which felt like a slimy chicken breast fresh from the fridge – and feel the powerful suction she makes with her mouth to inhale food.  My favorite part was touching her melon, which she uses to focus her echolocation signals and which reminded me of a baggy full of jelly that I could easily manipulate.  For the rest of my visit with Naku, I couldn’t help but repeatedly place my hand on her melon to feel and watch it jiggle.
Before we finished, Naku demonstrated some of the vocalizations that belugas make.  Her trainer told me to use four fingers to tickle her under the chin, which prompted Naku to produce a startlingly loud and rapid clicking noise.  A four-finger tickle to the roof of her mouth resulted in a soft kitten purr that could not have been more adorable from such a large animal.  And drawing one finger across the side of her melon generated a loud fart-like noise, which was an entertaining way to wrap up my visit.
While I’m philosophically on the fence about captive and trained animals at zoos and aquariums, it certainly appeared to me that the belugas at Mystic Aquarium were well cared for and reasonably happy.  And the experience I had with Naku was one I’ll never forget.

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