Of all the animals I worked with over the years, the most memorable were beluga whales. To me, nothing compared to receiving a beluga kiss, or squishing their bulbous melon. Their thick blubbery bodies were pure perfection to me. And no one was more perfect than our older beluga whale named Spooky.
The best thing about working with animals isn’t just the interactions. It isn’t even the moments they finally understand what you have been trying to teach them in their training sessions. For me, it is all the life lessons you learn from these amazing beings.
Spooky taught me a lot in our time together. The inspiration came through naturally. She was an amazing teacher, and I will never forget her special lessons on life.
- Break the ice. Beluga whales have several features which help them stand apart from dolphins. One of the more obvious differences is the beluga whale doesn’t have a dorsal fin. Instead, they have what is known as a dorsal ridge. A dorsal ridge is used to break through thin layers of ice to get to the surface to breathe. Belugas, in other words, are expert ice-breakers
Spooky taught me not to be timid when meeting new people. Break the ice boldly, and discover the interesting people in your life.
Following Spooky’s advice, I made friends in several countries and even visited friends in England without having met them in person beforehand. I have so many happy memories with fantastic people because I wasn’t afraid to approach someone new and introduce myself, and break the thin layer of ice that was separating us from becoming friends.
- Don’t just see with your eyes. All whales use echolocation to see their world. It’s a remarkable adaptation for navigating and searching for food. Belugas can determine the size, shape, density, heartrate, and direction another animal is moving. They can locate an object the size of a penny nearly a quarter a mile away. This is pretty darn accurate.
It’s not always easy for humans to see without using our eyes. We don’t have another sense like echolocation to assist us. But we do have our heart.
Spooky was my heart, and I would have done anything for that precious girl. Spooky taught me in order to see something truly, you have to feel it, sense it in other ways as well.
- Flashy attention seekers aren’t the only ones who can turn heads. In fact, those flashy attention-hogs called dolphins literally can’t turn heads. But you know who can? Belugas.
A unique adaptation belugas is they don’t have fused vertebrae in their neck, unlike all other whales, so they can turn their heads just like you and I can. Other whales and dolphins need to turn their entire body to look to the side. This specific adaptation works well for belugas who may need to enter underwater ice caves to find food. Turning their head sideways helps them find their food a little bit easier.
So, while belugas aren’t acrobatic jumpers, doing flips in the air, Spooky taught me they don’t need to be flashy. Flashy doesn’t always turn heads, or get you what you need.
- Slow down and enjoy the ride. Most people can watch a beluga and know instantly these animals aren’t going to win a race against other marine mammals anytime soon.
Belugas aren’t fast, but that’s part of their wonderful appeal. They are calming to watch underwater. I often compared belugas to underwater ballerinas.
Their calm disposition and slow maneuvering were what made them so popular for interactions. Because they didn’t make sudden movements or splash a lot of water, they were easy to introduce to guests of all ages. As charming as Spooky was, she made for a great arctic ambassador.
Spooky taught me that to win people’s hearts, you didn’t have to rush into the situation.
- Don’t be afraid to backtrack. Belugas, along with turning their head, are also the only whale that can swim backwards. I used to love watching Spooky swim into the dive cave, and then like a semi-truck, slowly back out. I knew if we only had underwater microphones, we all would have heard her making the beeping sound as she swam in reverse.
We all get ourselves into tight corners now and again. Be like Spooky and just back it up a little.
- When communicating, be sure to use your head. Another unique adaptation that I loved about Spooky was her ability to manipulate her melon. In order to produce their vocalizations, belugas change the shape of their bulbous forehead and release air. It’s obviously effective, as belugas are known as one of the most vocal species in the ocean. Spooky’s melon was one of my favorite things on earth. It would move every which way while she made the most amazing vocalizations.
When you use your head in communicating, you can say so much more with your words.
- Be mysterious. When I worked with Spooky, belugas were not as popular as they are now. I kind of liked that about them. It made introducing her and other belugas to guests that much more special. I was letting them in on a little-known secret of the animal world.
Sometimes the best thing is to be a little mysterious, and keep people wondering about you.
- Do or do not, there is no try. One of Spooky’s most endearing qualities was her testing people’s resolve. Spooky knew a lot of behaviors. There wasn’t much she couldn’t do. But once in a while, she would pretend to not know how to do a behavior, or even better, pretend it was too hard. Once a month we got weights on the beluga whales, and every now and then, Spooky would pretend it was too hard to get up on the scale. She would “try” a few times, and return to the trainer hoping to still get a fish. But this honestly wasn’t fair to Spooky. If we let her get away with trying, who knows what she would have missed because she pretended she couldn’t do it.
If there is something you want in this world, don’t just try, go for it. Do it. And then reap the rewards.
- Break out into song whenever the mood strikes you. Belugas are incredibly vocal animals. They have the nickname “the sea canary”. No one was better than Spooky at creating unique sounds. She once imitated a truck horn perfectly. Her squeaks, whistles, and trills were music to my ears. The best part about it? They were always spontaneous and voluntary. We rarely asked for her vocalizations. Spooky just sang because she felt like it.
- If you like someone, give them a buzz. My favorite sound from Spooky was her intimate buzz she gave trainers as a greeting. Spooky didn’t give everyone her signature buzz. She saved it for her absolute favorite people. Her buzz was her way of showing appreciation for people she liked. If Spooky gave you a buzz, you were her friend forever. Let your friends know how much they mean to you with a little buzz, too.