Lee Atkinson gets up close and personal with beluga whales
THERE are a lot of things my mother taught me, only some of which I heeded. But she never mentioned swallowing whale spit. I have to find out the hard way.
With a spare afternoon in Vancouver, I jump at the chance to join a behind-thescenes tour of Vancouver Aquarium, which includes a hands-on training session with beluga whales, the aquarium’s star exhibits.
These white Arctic whales, unfamiliar to most Australians, accustomed as we are to seeing their Antarctic cousins, southern rights and humpbacks, are seriously cute, and Vancouver Aquarium is one of the few places where visitors can interact with them.
The program begins with a briefing in a windowless office deep in the bowels of the aquarium, where the shrieks and giggles of the rampaging school groups terrorising the marine life outside are barely audible. We learn everything there is to know about the belugas, or so it seems, and I store away juicy snippets: the beluga is the only whale with a flexible neck; they are born brown and turn white with age; they are known as the canaries of the sea because they are so vocal; and they are one of the few species of whale able to swim backwards. I’m relieved to learn beluga caviar comes from the beluga sturgeon, not the whale.
Next, it’s off to the marine mammal kitchen, where we meet the trainer to help prepare the belugas’ daily food, which, as today is a Tuesday, consists of tiny, slimy, raw fish, although we’re told they also like to eat octopus, squid, crab, shrimp, clams, snails and sandworms. Buckets of fish in hand, we suit up in rather preposterous wet-weather gear, which looks and feels as if it has been designed for the Arctic, and head off to meet the whales. Crouching by the edge of the pool — sorry, beluga habitat — the trainer runs through the hand signals we’ve been shown at our briefing session, and introduces us to the whales, which we stroke (the skin feels like super-soft suede), pat their tongues (rougher than imagined), nervously feel their teeth and learn how to toss the fish so they can catch them.
Once they are used to us, and we to them, we try out our newly acquired hand signals to see if we can make the whales splash and swim on command, which of course they do, although I’m sure it has nothing to do with us and everything to do with knowing what’s expected of them.
But they do seem to enjoy the interaction and, as a grand finale, our trainer gives the secret command and the whales, on cue, playfully squirt long streams of water at us. I am too busy squealing with delight and, despite earlier warnings, forget to keep my mouth closed. Which is how I manage to swallow a mouthful of whale spittle. The rest doesn’t bear talking about.
The 90-minute beluga encounter is $C150 ($165) a person or $210 for one adult and one child (8-12). Bookings essential. More: www.vanaqua.org.
Spitting image: Hands-on experience at Vancouver Aquarium