FISHY BUSI­NESS

Lee Atkin­son gets up close and per­sonal with bel­uga whales

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Canada & Alaska -

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.

Check­list

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.

Pic­ture: Lee Atkin­son

Spit­ting im­age: Hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence at Van­cou­ver Aquar­ium

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