Beluga Encounter Habitat
After a flick of my palm, whale spit gushed forth. But I wasn’t disgusted. Instead I marveled at the velocity with which a living creature could spit—like a superpowerful hot-tub jet.
I was standing beside marine-mammal trainer Ken Ramirez chest-deep in the Shedd Aquarium’s revamped Oceanarium, excited and unnerved by the colossal whale floating three inches away. Ramirez was demonstrating how every human movement means something different to Kayavak, the Shedd’s ten-year-old beluga. A flick of the palm: spit. A pirouette: turn. A whistle blow: a fish snack for good behavior.
The informative lesson and awe-inspiring whale meet-and-greet was part of the new Beluga Encounter Habitat, a program that lets anyone who forks over a couple of Benjamins play with one of the Shedd’s belugas in a secluded Oceanarium pool. How it works: Upon entering the Shedd, a staffer hands over a pair of chest-high waders (learn from my inappropriate skirt: Come clad in socks and pants). Then you and five companions shuffle into a classroom where a highly knowledgeable trainer delivers an engrossing hour-long lesson on belugas. Our trainer also sternly instructed us how to behave in the pool: no hand signals, talking or fast movements—unless told.
In my fearful naiveté, I imagined my hand accidentally shooting up as the whale sunk its little teeth into me. Turns out the whale had the demeanor of a sweet, human-loving puppy dog, albeit much smarter. In our half-hour of pool time, Ramirez taught us to scratch her tongue, softly head-butt the playful creature and get sprayed by her blowhole.
While the intimate experience—only one of two whale encounters in the U.S.—moved me tremendously, my fear stayed until the program’s end. “Madeline, go up to Kayavak and nod your head—she’ll mimic you,” said Ramirez. Trembling, I did as told. But Kayavak just snuggled her warm, slimy head into my chest. Not knowing what to do, I laid a forbidden hand on her head, waiting for Ramirez to chastise me. Ramirez’s response: “Kayavak likes Madeline.”
Beluga Encounter Habitat costs $200 or $175 for members (includes admission, a photo and a T-shirt). Call 312-692-2730 to make a reservation at least three weeks in advance; the program takes place twice daily. Participants must be at least 60 inches tall and over ten years old.