I Hugged a Beluga Whale!!

Beluga whales make me smile. Their sweet faces always seem so happy! I have mentioned that a few years ago I participated in the Beluga Interaction Program at the Mystic Aquarium and pet a beluga. It was amazing, but never did the words “Now you are going to hug the whale” come out of the mouth of our animal trainer, and I left hug-less. However, recently I traveled to SeaWorld Orlando and participated in the Mammal Keeper Program, and I freaking hugged a beluga whale. What?! Seriously. It was the BEST day!!

The day started at 6:30 AM.

Asian Small-Clawed Otters – We prepared their food and then visited them at their habitat. One of the trainers fed them – I did get to shake one’s little paw through the cage. Too cute. They are the smallest of the 13 otter species, only 26 to 37 inches long and weigh just 2 to 11 pounds. I found it interesting that scent is the most important communication for freshwater otters. Like fingerprints, each otter’s scent is individual – cool. Asian small-clawed otters are found in Southeast Asia — from northern India to southeastern China, the Malay Peninsula, and parts of Indonesia. Sadly they are threatened with extinction due to habitat loss, pollution and demand for their fur. 😦 BUT SeaWorld’s Asian small-clawed otters are part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Species Survival Plans, the goal of which is to preserve in zoos and aquariums species that are threatened or endangered in the wild.

Animal Rescue Program – While SeaWorld is a profit company, they have an animal rescue program spanning over forty years benefiting more than 22,000 animals. They assist animals that are orphaned, ill, injured or in need of care. I watched on while a team of vets worked on a manatee. While disturbing to see the horrible infected gash on the adorably plump looking creature – it was fascinating to watch the team working so intently on saving the endangered species. It made me very happy to see the good they are doing.

Manatee – Manatees were once thought to be the mermaids! Hmmmm…quite large mermaids as Florida manatees average 10 ft. and can weigh up to 1,200 pounds. Visiting the slow moving manatees was very relaxing. I created a feeding experience for the animals in the first tank by placing large heads of romaine lettuce in a weighted tube so they would sink to the bottom of the pool and allow the manatees to graze. They seemed quite happy with me. Once at the main habitat, I fed them baby spinach – I think I heard them say “hells ya!” Eating seems to be their favorite activity; they spend six to eight hours a day munching away on greens!! Populations of all manatees species has declined due to hunting, destruction of habitat, boating, pollution and low reproduction rates. SeaWorld is the global leader in the rescue and rehabilitation of manatees.

Dolphins – The dolphins were adorably playful. I had the opportunity to feed them, ask them to do tricks and then pick out toys and see if they wanted to play. Apparently I chose well – an orange ball of course and a ribbon – they seemed quite fascinated and I loved it. A comical action they engage in while swimming around is blowing rings of air and then nudging them as if dribbling a soccer ball. I could hang there with them every day. I have had the opportunity to swim with them in the wild (written about here), but these dolphins were born and raised in captivity and are far more interactive and seem boundlessly curious of us humans and our belongings. When I was standing by the pool with my large camera, I quickly had an audience as the fast clicking sound seemed to interest them. In the wild I have yet to captivate ones attention more than a few seconds.

Harbor Seals – The opportunity to feed and chill with the harbor seals was also amazing: some fish, some tricks and even a kiss on the hand. They are just so damn cute!!! They are different from sea lions and have short front flippers and are not quite as nimble out of the water. My favorite seal is the elephant seal (photo below that I took while on South Georgia Island – I sooo wanted to hug the baby seal!!)

Sea Lions – Feeding time was full of merriment:)! Apparently the very vocal California sea lions aren’t just found in California! They also live along the Pacific coast of North America from southern British Columbia to central Mexico and into the Gulf of California. They are not small creatures: adult males reach lengths of 6.5 to 8 ft. and females are 5 to 6.5 ft. I have interacted with Sea Lions in the wild as well – both in the water and on land. In the water – they are charming to swim with, however on land they seem to lose a bit of their charm and become a bit scary. I have been chased – more than once. Damn terrifying!!! They are still cute though 🙂

Polar Bears – Polar bears are gigantic (largest male on record weighing 2,209 lb.) and frightening. I have yet to see or photograph them in the wild – it is certainly on my list of things to do. At SeaWorld this is one animal I had no interaction with (maybe because they will eat anything they can get their huge paws on, or that they can run up to 25 mph  or the fact they are crazy fierce in general) – we just watched on through the glass. One laughable moment of my time watching one of the translucently furred bears was when he had to pee. He lazily stood up and shuffled backwards until he reached the edge of his pool and then squatted and peed in it. I awkwardly stared and found this simple act to be hilarious. It is crazy to think that these enormous predators start off about one pound when they are born!

Walrus – The idea of interacting with a walrus is just a hells ya moment. After watching 50 First Dates (very cute movie by the way) and watching the walrus throw kisses, I was sold on their amazingness. Did I get a walrus kiss? I did!! Safely on my hand! There is nothing quite like feeding an animal that can weigh up to 3,700 pounds. They have whisker-like vibrissae covering their smushy looking faces that they use to help them locate food. Their immense tusks are used to help pull themselves out of the water onto ice as well as for defense and to establish social dominance. Walruses are vocal and with hand signals I kindly requested them to show me their stuff – it worked – incredible! I would LOVE to swim with walruses, but let’s be honest I am not sure it’s all that safe, and it would be silly cold – they do live in the arctic after all. I will work on getting a dry suit!

Beluga – Speaking of cold water – the water in the beluga whale habitat is 55°F. An opportunity to hang with the belugas is so worth being cold! I loved them!! Hugs, kisses, tricks, noises and feeding – fantastic. These great white whales are born grey and as they mature turn white as camouflage for the icy waters where they live. Belugas are remarkable; they use echolocation and can dive down to 2,300 ft. below the surface!!

I have always had mixed feelings about animals in captivity – are they happy?, are they safe?, etc. etc. I interacted with several animals behind the scenes, and I have to say in this case the people taking care of these wondrous animals truly love them and want nothing but the very best for them. The animals get high quality food, everything was extraordinarily clean and if I had to judge whether or not these particular animals were happy or not, I would have to say they are pretty damn thrilled to be playing all day and getting food from who they probably think are their servants.

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SeaWorld Orlando

SeaWorld Orlando

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