A Whale of a Time

Up close and personal with the Beluga whales at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium.

By Tim Heyes

I never owned a dog. Since I never really connected with a pet of my own, I always felt that I had missed out on that special bond between an animal and a human. Luckily, I had an opportunity to experience something that was far more uncommon and memorable, an interaction and, I daresay, a bond between a man and a baby Beluga whale named Kayavak.

At the Shedd Aquarium along Chicago’s famous waterfront, visitors have the opportunity to experience an up close encounter with the mostly white, cigar shaped, seemingly always smiling, arctic marine animals known as Beluga whales. Adult Beluga whales can grow up to 18 feet long and weigh 3,300 pounds. After watching an informative video on the life cycle and habitat of the Beluga, visitors change into specialized hip waders and thoroughly wash their hands and arms to remove all the bacteria and human scents and to ensure we are safe to touch the animals. This takes about 1 hour of the 90-minute experience.

The highlight of the adventure occurs when we are led to a three-foot deep ledge of the 90,000 gallon, 16-foot deep enclosure at the Grainger Beluga Encounter Habitat that is home to Shedd’s Belugas. It is there that we participate with the trainer face to face with the whales in a “training exercise.” We’re able to touch the skin of the whale, rub its tongue, accept kisses and even have a game of retrieve the ball or find the symbol.

After each exercise, 4-year-old “Kayavak” was rewarded with small sardine-like fishes for its participation. Of the four encounter guests, the young whale seemed to gravitate to and bond with me during the exercises, perhaps sensing our kindred spirit with matching bald pates and protruding foreheads – and perma smile. Kayavak really seemed to enjoy the time with the trainer and guests. As a memento of the encounter, guests receive a colourful album with pictures capturing the highlights of our adventure.

It was well worth braving the chilly water temperatures to get a close up look at one of the Arctic’s most wonderful creatures. www.sheddaquarium.org


Morning and midday encounters are available on Friday, Saturday and Sunday:
$250 per person, plus admission
$225 for members
To reserve, call 312-692-2730.