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Shedd Aquarium's baby beluga beats the odds
By Marni Pyke | Daily Herald Staff

Puiji's 5-month-old baby glides along her side at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.

 

Courtesy Shedd Aquarium

Puiji's 5-month-old baby glides along her side and is about to nurse at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.

 

Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

Ken Ramirez, Shedd Aquarium's executive vice president of animal collections and training, interacts with the baby beluga.

 

Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

Puiji the beluga whale and her baby, born in December, delight visitors in the underground viewing area at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.

 

Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

Puiji and baby swim at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.

 

Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

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Published: 5/24/2010 12:04 AM

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About Shedd's belugas, Inuit names

Shedd Aquarium's beluga whales come from the northern Pacific Ocean, which has the largest population of belugas in the world. Belugas live in Arctic and sub-Arctic waters (around the north pole). They migrate from open waters in the winter to shallow estuaries during the summer.

The connection between the Pacific Northwest and its native people, the Inuit, is represented through the names Shedd Aquarium gives to its collection of beluga whales. Almost all of Shedd's beluga whales derive their names from the Inuit language of the native people who live among belugas in the Arctic region.

The Oceanarium's Pacific Northwest coastal setting brings guests face-to-face with the natural habitat of dolphins, whales, sea otters and sea lions. When building the Oceanarium, Shedd chose the Pacific Northwest ecosystem as its setting for several reasons. First, Shedd Aquarium wants guests to become more sensitized to the plight of North America's vanishing temperate rain forests and encourages each visitor to support the protection and conservation of those fragile environments. Second, marine mammals found in the Pacific Northwest include species such as beluga whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins and Alaskan sea otters - animals many people from Chicago and the Midwest may never have an opportunity to see in the wild.

The 3-million-gallon saltwater Oceanarium at Shedd Aquarium is one of the largest indoor marine mammal habitats in the world. Nature trails wind through a stretch of rugged rain forest, immersing guests in a naturalistic ecosystem that demonstrates the fragile relationship that exists between animals, plants, land and water.

It's Grand Central Station at Shedd Aquarium. Crowds of schoolkids delirious at getting a day off, moms with toddlers in tow and tourists armed with cameras are gravitating to the Polar Play Area.

Win a beluga encounter

beluga contest

What should Shedd Aquarium's new baby beluga be named? Cast your vote here for a traditional Inuit name and enter to win an experience with a beluga and a Shedd family VIP pack. You must be at least 10 years old and 5 feet tall to win. Winners ages 10-15 must be accompanied by an adult. Full sweepstakes rules.


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They snap photos as 1,500-pound beluga whale Puiji swoops by just inches from the glass. They ooh and ahh as her calf shadows his mom and giggle when the baby inches along the bottom of the tank, scratching an itch.

"Look at the size of that guy," a man comments as a beluga cruises by.

"Look at the baby - it's so cute!" a woman tells her daughter.

Five months ago, as divers raced to save the little beluga's life, this idyllic scene seemed unlikely.

Complications from a breech birth compromised the calf's ability to swim to the surface and get that essential first breath of air.

His existence is a minor miracle attributable to the attention of Shedd staff, Puiji's nurturing and the baby's will to survive.

There's only one thing missing from the young beluga's life and that's a name. The Daily Herald and ABC 7 are partnering with Shedd Aquarium in a sweepstakes that invites the public to vote on an Inuit name reflecting the whales' habitat in the waters of the Arctic Circle. For details, check out dailyherald.com.

"There was an elated feeling when he took his first breath," said Ken Ramirez, senior vice president of animal collections and training. "We knew there was a risk things might not go right, but training and practice paid off."

'She just trusts us'

A change in 23-year-old Puiji's behavior convinced Ramirez to prepare for a long night at the aquarium Dec. 13. Animal care specialists had monitored the female's progress through her 15 months of pregnancy with blood tests and ultrasounds, so it was no surprise when she started going into labor around 11:30 p.m.

But at 4:30 a.m. Dec. 14 when the beluga baby's head popped out, Shedd staff faced an unwanted and possibly deadly complication.

It's crucial calves get to the surface to breathe within minutes of birth. Normally, beluga babies come out tail first. This allows time for the soft, fleshy tail curled up in the uterus to harden in cold water so the calf can swim upward.

But when the tail emerges last, the cartilage has no chance to stiffen. Often desperate females try to save their calves unsuccessfully given the difficulty of trying to lift a slippery newborn to the surface.

Shedd trainers were determined to keep the little whale alive.

"We know from experience that head first does not have to be a certain death," Ramirez remembers thinking.

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A team of divers took 20-minute shifts in the frigid 55-degree water, waiting as Puiji's labor continued. At 6:36 a.m., the calf was born.

The newborn gave a feeble kick and tried to move. Nothing happened. "When we saw he wasn't coming up on his own, we immediately went in," Ramirez recounts.

Four divers spurted toward the beluga and eight hands guided the 154-pound calf upward.

There could have been another twist in the story had Puiji reacted. Mother belugas are instinctively protective and Puiji could have kept the rescuers at bay.

"The key thing is the relationship with his mother," Ramirez said. "We know Puiji and she trusts us. It's hard to say what she sensed but she just trusts us."

Cheers erupted as the newborn took its first breath through its blowhole.

"Adrenalin was rushing," Ramirez said.

King of the pool

In a normal birth, Shedd staff let the females take charge. In this case, they partnered with Puiji.

Fortunately, mom and baby bonded immediately with the calf copying Puiji's every move.

"Puiji's an experienced mother, she showed him what to do," Ramirez said.

Following in the wake of her slipstream eased his difficulties but it became obvious the baby continued to struggle with diving - another worry. "If he can't dive, he can't nurse," Ramirez explained.

Later that afternoon as a precaution, Puiji was directed into the medical bay. The newborn trailed her, allowing trainers to give him a physical along with fluids and antibiotics.

They knew they'd turned a corner Dec. 15 when the calf began nursing.

"As is often the case, when you have a strong animal, Mother Nature does a great job of helping them adapt," Ramirez said.

After a rocky start, the calf now is king of the pool. He weighs about three times his birth weight at 400 pounds, thanks to nursing with Puiji and another lactating female, Naya, whose calf died Dec. 22.

The deficiencies in his now normal tail enabled the baby to become a star swimmer. "He's a much more talented swimmer at his age than other belugas because he had to learn to adopt and do unique maneuvers," Ramirez said.

Now, the youngster is independent enough to spend time away from Puiji and play with the other calves.

"He's very curious and very playful," Ramirez said. "He loves to mimic."

But if he needs mom, the two have a unique signature whistle that enables them to find each other no matter how far apart. Belugas are nicknamed "canaries of the sea" because of the chirps and squeals they make through their blowholes.

The only thing that daunts the little whale is thunder. After hearing thunder for the first time, the baby was startled and retreated, Ramirez reported.

Beluga newborns in the wild have a 50 percent survival rate and only 10 percent of calves born to first-time mothers live.

Shedd's record is a little higher than 50 percent. "We've had a number of successful births and have one of the most successful beluga breeding programs," Ramirez said. Shedd, which is one of six North American zoos and aquariums that breeds and displays these whales, has had 10 beluga pregnancies and seven live births.

Naya's calf ran into complications in the womb when the placenta separated from the uterine wall, depriving the calf of oxygen. It died a few days after birth. "When an animal dies, it's like losing a member of your family," Ramirez said.

Conversely, in the case of Puiji's calf, "when an animal overcomes long odds, you feel so blessed and privileged to help it happen."

Intervening in the breech birth is another reason aquariums and zoos are essential, Ramirez said when asked about criticism by animal activists of these institutions.

"Our goal is to inspire people to care about animals like beluga whales so they never end up on the endangered species list.

"Until the day comes when we don't have oil spills, when we don't have forests cut down and we aren't having devastation to our wild places, I think zoos and aquariums are a necessary key to educate people about the plight these animals face."

During a recent training session, Ramirez interacts with the baby beluga who approaches him readily. The youngster darts around, torn between mom and curiosity about what beluga buddies Bella and Miki are eating.

"He's strong, he's robust, he's nursing well," Ramirez said. "If we were to bring in a beluga expert who didn't know him they would not be able to anticipate he had a birth problem or a birth challenge."

All about Shedd's belguas, Inuit people

Shedd Aquarium's beluga whales come from the northern Pacific Ocean, which has the largest population of belugas in the world. Belugas live in Arctic and sub-Arctic waters (around the north pole). They migrate from open waters in the winter to shallow estuaries during the summer.

The connection between the Pacific Northwest and its native people, the Inuit, is represented through the names Shedd Aquarium gives to its collection of beluga whales. Almost all of Shedd's beluga whales derive their names from the Inuit language of the native people who live among belugas in the Arctic region.

The Oceanarium's Pacific Northwest coastal setting brings guests face-to-face with the natural habitat of dolphins, whales, sea otters and sea lions. When building the Oceanarium, Shedd chose the Pacific Northwest ecosystem as its setting for several reasons. First, Shedd Aquarium wants guests to become more sensitized to the plight of North America's vanishing temperate rain forests and encourages each visitor to support the protection and conservation of those fragile environments. Second, marine mammals found in the Pacific Northwest include species such as beluga whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins and Alaskan sea otters -- animals many people from Chicago and the Midwest may never have an opportunity to see in the wild.

The 3-million-gallon saltwater Oceanarium at Shedd Aquarium is one of the largest indoor marine mammal habitats in the world. Nature trails wind through a stretch of rugged rain forest, immersing guests in a naturalistic ecosystem that demonstrates the fragile relationship that exists between animals, plants, land and water.

2010 Inuit Names
Inuit name Pronunciation Meaning
Ipiktok (Ip-eek-tock) Very keen or sharp
Opipok (Oh-pee-pock) Admirable, to admire
Tuwawi (Too-wah-wee) Quick
Nilak (Nee-lock) Fresh water ice
Kimalu (Kee-ma-loo) Traditional Inuit name given to special people
Mituk (Mee-took) Small snow layer on fishing hole
Nunavik (New-na-vik) Friendly, beautiful, and wild
Aniuk (Ah-nee-ook) Snow for drinking water
Aput (Ah-poot) Snow on ground
Akiak (Ah-kee-ock) Brave

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