Reviews of bucket-list-worthy things to do all over the world

Beluga Encounter

Baby Beluga in the deep blue sea,
Swim so wild and you swim so free.
Heaven above, and the sea below,
And a little white whale on the go.

Sorry, Raffi, your song, “Baby Beluga,” got it wrong! Baby belugas are gray. They only become white as they mature. That was one of the interesting facts that I learned during my Beluga Encounter, a beluga whale interaction program, at Vancouver Aquarium.

My eight year old brother and I met up with our guide and our two fellow participants, a preteen girl and her aunt, at the beluga tank’s underwater viewing area. We stepped into a special classroom where an interactive educational talk about whales kicked off our experience, then our guide took us deep behind the scenes of the aquarium.

We were led to a rack of clothes where we each donned a rain jacket, life vest, and waterproof pants that were reminiscent of “feety pajamas.” We looked a little like the Gorton’s Fisherman, but we didn’t care; we were dressed up to meet a beluga whale. First, we visited a food preparation room where we helped prepare the belugas’ seafood diet, then we headed off to meet a beluga.

As the other aquarium guests watched the Beluga Show, we took our places along the side of the tank for our own private performance. One of the trainers introduced us to Qila (KEE-la), a ten year old beluga whale. Her name is short for "qilalugaq qualuqtaq" meaning “beluga” in Inuktitut. Although Qila looked mostly white, her trainer pointed out that her gray baby-beluga-color was still visible, especially around her eyes.

We stroked Qila’s back. She felt a lot like a dolphin: cool, smooth, firm, and rubbery. When we pet the top of Qila’s head, I was surprised to discover that her large melon was soft and squishy. After we’d become acquainted with the beautiful beluga, we were taught to cue some of Qila’s behaviors using hand and arm signals.

We rewarded Qila for her behaviors by tossing raw fish into her pink, toothy mouth. A few behaviors involved Qila spitting or splashing a large amount of ice-cold aquarium water on us. Fortunately, our Beluga Encounter outfits kept us fairly dry, although a small amount of water did end up down the front of my shirt.
We were only allowed about twenty minutes with Qila, but we could have happily spent hours playing and interacting with the cute, smart beluga.

I did this in 2006 at Vancouver Aquarium in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.


On June 10th, 2008, Qila became a mother when she gave birth to a 50 kilogram, 1.4 meter long, little gray baby beluga who was named Tiqa (TEE-kah).

Jen (California, USA)