BELUGA LOVE: An excerpt from Nancy Lord's Beluga Days

Beluga Days
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What? You live with wild whales, and you’re going to an aquarium to look at them?”

I hadn’t, until seeing my friend’s disbelieving look, considered the irony of the situation. There I was, in Chicago, and if there was some advantage to being in the city beyond wandering the Native American collections in the Field Museum, it was surely to see beluga whales at the Shedd Aquarium. There were maybe fifty belugas living in captivity in 1998, and five of them swam at the Shedd. I had never seen a living, swimming beluga that I could really see.

But, Maureen protested, didn’t I know what a turnabout that was? The only live whales most people would ever see would be behind glass. That was the ordinary experience. The extraordinary one was mine. Other people could only dream of seeing belugas in the wild.

That was true, but the ordinary was something I wanted to know about too. I wanted to see other people seeing belugas, and I wanted to know what they made of that experience. One thing I understood was that there were many ways to love belugas. Some of those ways involved watching gleams of white from a distance, of rising and falling on the same swells of the same sea that kept beluga secrets. Some involved following “footprints” and admiring evasive abilities, or counting, or working out statistical probabilities. Some involved testing one’s self against the whale, and taking part of it, as food, into one’s own body. Most people’s beluga love was of a simpler kind, less intimate perhaps—or maybe not. Maybe love was never simple. Who was to say that the millions of children raised on the Raffi song “Baby Beluga,” who might never have any knowledge of belugas beyond the song itself—or the cover of the tape or CD from which it played, or maybe the book that went with it, with the smiling baby beluga, the “little white whale on the go”—didn’t still love belugas with a kind of passion?

I had, I admitted, doubts about the propriety of confining wild animals to—essentially—cages. Could I justify entering the kind of place I had always disparaged as a “whale jail”? Did I really want to lend my support, with my admission fee and my presence, to the captivity of animals that had once kicked their flukes freely in icy Hudson Bay? The Shedd’s belugas, after all, had neither been born in captivity nor rescued from some disaster that might otherwise have caused their deaths. They had been healthy wild animals pursuing normal whale lives until they were jumped on or tangled in nets, then hauled away to an entirely new environment. On the other hand, both aquariums and zoos—the good, responsible ones—serve educational and scientific purposes; the public and researchers learn things that will benefit wildlife in the long run. Intellectually, I knew that, but I also believed that putting animals on display is generally degrading to them and to the relationships that we ought to have with fellow species.

I was also a person who had lived long and happily among the many mysteries of whales, salmon, and ocean, and I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to replace some of that mystery with something that might, in its factuality, shake my equilibrium.

John Steinbeck wrote that there were three ways of seeing actual marine creatures (as opposed to photographic images of them): dead and preserved, in their own habitats for short times, and in an aquarium for long periods. He’d been referring specifically to the kinds of intertidal animals he encountered on his collecting trip to the Sea of Cortez, but this seemed a general truism. There weren’t too many whales bottled in formaldehyde, but I had studied the dead beluga washed up on my beach as well as the articulated skeleton at my local museum. I had all those brief, silt-obscured Cook Inlet glimpses. Now I was going to add Steinbeck’s third way. Seeing belugas in an aquarium would be, I thought, like adding a third dimension to the two-dimensional world I had inhabited so far. My picture would be, if not complete, at least fuller.

And there I was, at the door with money in hand, like any other dupe.

Once inside the Shedd, I skirted the main building devoted to fish and continued straight past the penguins, otters, seals, and white-sided dolphins to the beluga tanks. And there they were, such a long, long way from home, backed up to picture windows on Lake Michigan as though there were some connection between the freshwater lake and their own deep and dark distant ocean.

I stood frozen at the rail, as I might have on my beach, looking, and looking, and looking. While blowhole spray drizzled over me, three whales, three shades of white, sluggishly circled in clear water. But this—this—is what, above all, I saw: folds of fat bunched like double, triple, quadruple chins as the one vertically poised white whale bent forward, as if to look down its length to where some phantom toes may have been. Then the other way: Its doughy head lifted, the neck stretched smooth in front, and the back of its head stood out from the creases like a small globe held in place with loose wraps of sheeting. That huge, long body—three times my height—and then the little head perched almost at right angles to it: It was different, and more, than anything I had previously imagined.

I had known for many years that belugas turn their heads. I knew for a fact that they were the only cetaceans (aside from a couple of small dolphins) with unfused neck vertebrae—to have, in short, necks. I had carried with me a mental picture of them turning their heads sideways as they swam, like a human swimmer doing the crawl (except without the breath-taking). I thought of them suspended in the water, facing left or right, with all the mechanics of their neck and back bones well buried in the smooth rounded blubber of their bodies.

In all my years of beluga watching on Cook Inlet, I’d never seen more of the whales than the arcs of their backs rising above gray water, the misty blows of their breaths, and, very rarely, a flipping fluke. I’d never seen so much as a clear head, never mind a turning one. The one dead whale that washed ashore had been bloated to grotesquerie.

For all their detail, none of the photographs I’d studied had ever conveyed to me much more than a cartoonish shape stiffly floating.

I must have looked like a nutcase, standing in amazement beside the beluga pool. Up, down, around: Heads kept turning as the three animals engaged with one another, with the walls, the surface of the water, the rest of their surroundings. Other people came by. “Oh, look,” they said. “Belugas.” And then they were gone, while I was still watching heads turn, still adjusting what I thought I knew to be true. I couldn’t get over those necks. I couldn’t get enough of watching blowholes snap open and closed like mechanical valves. I was tantalized by textures and imperfections—the many scars and scrapes and rough patches, the distinctive wrinkles, a small notch in a fluke.

Where were those sleek segments of white wheels I thought I knew? They had always been illusions, I knew, but even knowing that had not prepared me for the bulbous little heads and blunt, petal-shaped flippers. These belugas were alternately lumpy and hollow and curiously contoured, as though their creator had been very unhandy in his application of modeling clay. They reminded me not even of whales but of manatees, of the extinct Steller sea cow.

And how was I to reconcile the very awkward shape with its most graceful of maneuvering? Because graceful is what they surely were, the three of them circling and swerving and brushing up against one another, bending and curving like the most flexible of ballerinas: the very white whale, the somewhat less white whale, the still grayish whale.

At the appointed time a cheerful Shedd employee arrived to present her beluga talk. She told the assembled: The three whales in the tank were all about thirteen years old. One was a male, and the other two were pregnant females, halfway through their fifteen-month gestations and trained to submit to medical ultrasounds. I saw then that the females, identified by teats alongside their genital slits that, otherwise, resembled the male’s, were indeed more rounded than their polygamous mate.

A focus of the Shedd’s beluga program, the young woman told us, was reproduction. That is, they were trying to develop a breeding program. If belugas would successfully breed in captivity, the needs of aquariums could be filled without capturing wild animals. And, of course, the knowledge gained might be applied to protect and conserve animals in their natural environments. “The biggest problem for belugas today,” the young woman said, “is pollution and habitat destruction. Caring about belugas is the first step in their conservation.”

The beluga breeding program had not yet, eight years after the Shedd’s whale addition opened, been a success. Another female—now with a mate in a separate tank—had given birth six months earlier, but the calf had been weak, unable—even with the help of human divers—to swim to the surface to breathe, and it had died.

At the end of the talk, I wandered down to the lower level where I discovered that it’s one thing to watch whales from above, however clear the water might be, and something else entirely to see them below the surface, in their own, aqueous element. On the other side of the glass the three belugas circled, floated, and bounced up and down from vertical positions, with their heads out of the water, “spy-hopping.” They cruised upside-down, bellies up and dorsal sides down, propelled by what seemed a mere flip of fluke and bend of body. They rubbed their backs on a fake-rock archway and brushed up against one another in what looked to be an affectionate manner. They swung past the glass, a nose-length (mine, not theirs) away. I could see every flaw in their skin, every muscle movement, the shine in their dark eyes.

And I could see another aspect of beluga physiology I had known to be true but had not imagined—the changing of their head shapes. Like something borrowed from science fiction or a distortion in a funhouse mirror, there they were—moving around the contents of their heads, shifting shape. Now, what I had read made sense. All that acoustical oil in the bulging front part of the head—the melon—can be moved at will, as we might tilt our heads, to best receive sound. When a beluga shapes its melon, as well as when it turns its head, it’s focusing sound—in the same way that twisting certain flashlights will focus their light beams. This system applies to receiving both general sound in the beluga’s environment and the returning “bounce” of its own echolocating clicks.

Bulge, shift, shrink, enlarge, flatten. I could see, with my own eyes, true shape-shifting, a real and uncanny no-special-effects morphing.

And then there were the sounds. I was finally hearing belugas. The chorus coming from overhead speakers was just as it’s been described: a cacophony of clicks, squeaks, whistles, and trills. There were creaks like doors opening on rusty hinges and high-pitched electronic wheezes. I closed my eyes and imagined being in a tropical rainforest at dawn, surrounded by boisterous exotic birds. The voices were thick and various, echoing. They were, I found when I asked, recorded in the Canadian wild with a hydrophone.

While scientists hesitate to use the word language when they talk about the sounds that whales make, those sounds clearly make up communication systems. Killer whales have been found to have different dialects, depending on what pod and region they live within. Humpbacks famously sing, in patterns that repeat and seem to be copied and adapted among whales and across time and space. Belugas have a diverse repertoire—suggesting not only that they communicate within social groupings but that they may have a lot to communicate about. Belugas, researchers say, are very, very good at separating out specific, individual, and significant sounds from all the rest. Belugas are also imitative, and the ones at the Shedd, we were told, had learned to clank and wheeze along with the mechanical operations of their tanks.

At least a piece of what belugas and other cetaceans “say” is somewhat understood. The basic clicking appears to be, simply and complicatedly enough, the production of sound for echolocating, akin to what bats and sonar do. A beluga’s clicks bounce off whatever’s out there in its field of negotiation and are recaptured and “read” to determine shape, depth, solidity, and distance—even, apparently, behind barriers and around corners. I thought again about all the extreme conditions in which belugas live—sunless waters choked in ice, silty estuaries and shallow channels, Cook Inlet—and how much there might be to learn from the owner of what may be the world’s most sophisticated navigational system.

I watched the belugas and listened to the recording, and then I stood back and watched and listened to other people watching and listening. The most common response from passers-by was along the lines of “Oh, look, belugas,” or “Belugas! Cool!” or, to small whining children, “Look at the beluga, honey. He’s trying to kiss you.” It was a rare visitor who paused long enough to plant his or her feet in front of the glass wall. No one seemed to notice the head shape changing; no one seemed to cock an ear to the chorus, which may as well have been mall Muzak.

No one, reasonably enough, shared my obsession. It was something, I thought, that my fellow visitors at least knew the name of a strange animal they were unlikely ever to encounter in a natural habitat. The mothers and children, the men and the boys, the couple holding hands—they all saw the belugas and moved on to the interactive displays. They lit up a map of the world’s sixteen Arctic and sub-Arctic beluga populations. They pushed buttons to show, by comparison, the sizes of the bigger whales—killers, sperms, and blues.

And then they went off to the choreographed dolphin show, clearly a crowd-pleaser. “We need to protect their habitat, the fish they eat, and the water they swim in,” the woman there chanted. The training wasn’t really to entertain us, she explained. It was to stimulate the dolphins mentally and to protect their health. That is, they were trained to hold still for procedures like having their blood taken. The circus music, the strutting of human attendants, the whole staged routine of synchronized jumping, tail-walking, and blowhole squeaking—all that, if I wasn’t to be too cynical, got people through the door and into the seats so that they could hear about what was really important.

A way to help dolphins, the woman said at the conclusion of her presentation, was “to not throw trash in the street.” Well, yes, that would be a start. And people who learn to care about belugas might not pour their used motor oil down storm drains? I supposed we could do worse than help humans make these elemental connections to the way they, and wild animals, live.

Back at the beluga tank, I watched the three belugas circle, again and again, past the glass wall just inches from my inquiring face. I tried to look beyond the anatomically curved smiley-mouths to read something in their expressions, and I imagined we were locking eyes. Beluga eyesight isn’t great, I knew—little required in dark and turbidity, otherwise compensated for. Still, one way or another—through rods and cones or by reflected sound, assuming that the wall of the tank didn’t act as a barrier—I felt sure the whales “saw” me standing beside them. Probably, I thought, they saw me with considerable precision. In the wild, they would surely need to know if what they approached was friend, foe, or food.

The bigger question seemed to be, what could these whales possibly care about any of the human forms—short, tall, fat, thin, calm, agitated, fast-paced, or lingering for an inordinately long time—that passed their wall, all day, every day? In their confined lives, perhaps they grasped what meager stimulation they could in whatever occasionally varied within the tank or beyond the wall. Perhaps they thought people were marched past for their own entertainment? What did it mean for a whale to “think”?

The complexity of whale brains rivals our own, and many of our species would like to attribute to theirs a kind of human intelligence. But there we are, homocentric as ever, so limited in our understandings and imaginings that we can only conceive of others in terms of ourselves. It’s much more likely that the complex brains of whales are geared to different functions than ours—all that acoustical, echolocating ability, for a start.

One of the female whales bumped its head under an arch. Ouch! I was surprised it would be so clumsy. Then it did it again. The game, I observed after a few more repetitions, involved releasing air to be caught as bubbles under the arch, then striking the arch to send the bubbles, like little air balloons, to the surface. How bored does a whale need to be to invent such head-splitting play?

The male beluga swam directly at me, turned belly-to at the last minute, and loosed its penis from its genital slit. The long pink organ flailed out like a waving sea anemone or the tentacle of an octopus. I was being flashed! By a whale! What was it thinking? It seemed, most definitely, to have intentionally displayed itself not to one of the other whales but to me. In my surprise, I jerked away. The next moment, I smiled. Did the beluga record my reaction? Was its act one of hostility, curiosity, boredom, flirtation, anything to provoke a reaction? Or nothing—did it mean nothing at all, just normal whale behavior, whether anyone was present or not?

Later, I would read that captive dolphins, the belugas’ cousins, are famously indiscriminate in their sexual displays. The Shedd publicist would also assure me that such beluga behavior is common. The interesting question (for me) remains one of motivation, one I suspect might be a challenge even to a beluga. In removing belugas from their usual situations and placing them in artificial ones, we’ve surely set the stage for abnormal behavior. We know this from our own species; look what happens to people kept in closets or raised by wolves.

I might have stayed all day with the belugas, insatiable in my desires to see and to know. When at last I tore myself away, I remembered the proverbial blind man who had known an elephant only by feeling one of its legs; at last I, like he, had extended my “touch.” I carried away with me a beluga picture that would alter forever how I saw those white arcs rising from my home seas. But I still remembered something Barry Lopez had written about sperm whales, after compiling a list of astounding size, weight, diet, ambergris, and ability-to-sort-through-noise facts. “What makes them awesome is not so much these things, which are discoverable, but the mysteries that shroud them.”


--Excerpted from Beluga Days: Tracking the Endangered White Whale, by Nancy Lord, 2007 paperback edition, The Mountaineers Books.

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