Up close and per­sonal

Vis­i­tors can now get a closer look at bel­uga whales dur­ing the Sea World Up-Close Tour.

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Kath­leen Chris­tiansen Email Kath­leen at kchris­tiansen @or­lan­dosen­tinel.com. Fol­low her on Twit­ter: @katie_christi. Fol­low her on In­sta­gram: @katie_christi.

I can’t think of bel­uga whales with­out rem­i­nisc­ing the catchy Raffi tune “Baby Bel­uga.”

Af­ter lis­ten­ing to the song re­lent­lessly as a child, I came to the Bel­uga Whales Up-Close Tour at SeaWorld Or­lando with a some­what-skewed per­spec­tive. Mainly, I thought of a lit­tle white whale on the go that would sing a song for me.

I did see a white whale, but it was far from lit­tle.

The park’s gray whale, how­ever, did sing for us.

Brit­tany Rohrig, an in­struc­tor in SeaWorld Or­lando’s An­i­mal Pro­grams Depart­ment, told me that I might see dif­fer­ent be­hav­iors and some vo­cal­iza­tions, but noth­ing was guar­an­teed.

“You never know what you’re go­ing to get,” Rohrig said.

The ex­pe­ri­ence takes place in the Wild Arc­tic build­ing, and all per­sonal items are locked up at the start to pre­vent any­thing from fall­ing into the pool.

Be­fore head­ing to the pool, we learned about food prep at the Wild Arc­tic kitchen.

Rohrig said that SeaWorld goes be­yond USDA rat­ings to meet the As­so­ci­a­tion of Zoos and Aquar­i­ums (AZA) rat­ings. For ex­am­ple, she said, thawed fish must be used within 24 hours.

Then it was time to meet the bel­u­gas — Nalu­ark, a male, and Whis­per, a fe­male.

Whis­per was born at SeaWorld San Antonio in 1999 and ar­rived at SeaWorld Or­lando in Novem­ber 2010. Nalu­ark is on loan to SeaWorld from Shedd Aquar­ium.

In a pool be­hind the bel­u­gas’ habi­tat, two train­ers pre­pared for the in­ter­ac­tion. Guests were di­vided by the groups with which they booked the tour and took turns meet­ing ei­ther Nalu­ark or Whis­per.

Note: Guests only get the chance to in­ter­act with one whale per en­counter.

While I waited my turn, I was en­ter­tained by a res­cued harp seal named Wi­ley that hap­pened to be in the mid­dle of a train­ing ses­sion dur­ing the tour. This doesn’t al­ways hap­pen, so my group was lucky.

Shea Eaves, an an­i­mal care spe­cial­ist at SeaWorld Or­lando, called us over to meet the very vo­cal Whis­per. She sang to us through­out most of the in­ter­ac­tion.

Eaves ex­plained that they train the bel­u­gas us­ing hand tar­gets to get de­sired ac­tions. She pointed out dif­fer­ent parts of Whis­per’s anatomy and al­lowed us to touch the whale, re­ward­ing Whis­per with treats each time for her co­op­er­a­tion.

Eaves ex­plained that the bel­u­gas are taught to par­tic­i­pate in their health care. For ex­am­ple, both co­op­er­ate for eye drops and show their mouths for ex­am­i­na­tion. They’re also learn­ing how to get on the scale to be weighed.

As we bid adieu, Whis­per wasn’t quite ready to say good­bye. She lin­gered by the pool as we ex­ited.

The Bel­uga Whales Up-Close Tour ac­com­mo­dates up to 12 peo­ple and runs daily. The ex­pe­ri­ence is only for ages 6 and up. The price starts at $40 but varies de­pend­ing on the sea­son and day of the week (Note: Park ad­mis­sion must be pur­chased sep­a­rately). For more in­for­ma­tion or to book a reser­va­tion, call 407-545-5550 or visit SeaWorld Or­lando’s web­site.


Vis­it­ing from Michi­gan, the Perry fam­ily in­ter­acts with a bel­uga whale on one of SeaWorld Or­lando’s Up-Close tours last month.

Guests study the bel­uga whales at SeaWorld Or­lando’s Wild Arc­tic at­trac­tion last month.

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