Once upon a time, I stuck my hand into a beluga whale's mouth and patted her firmly on the tongue. Really.
Being a travel writer is always an adventure. Here in New England, I've seen seals up close, hugged a baby moose, hiked with llamas, caught lobsters, patted a Clydesdale and watched teddy bears have stuffing shot into their bellies at 100 miles per hour. But patting a beluga whale on the tongue was the most unforgettable animal adventure of all.
The 1,100-pound beluga actually seemed to enjoy having her tongue slapped vigorously, so when the trainer encouraged me to reach my hand in once again and tickle the roof of Kela's mouth to see what sound she would make, I was happy to give it a go... and even happier to hear a delightful "squeak" rather than something like "chomp chomp."
Beluga whales, also known as white whales, are classified as toothed whales, after all. I had already had an opportunity to touch Kela's blunt teeth and to learn that her suck is worse than her bite by making an "O" with my fingers and allowing the beluga to demonstrate what some fishies' and squids' final moments must feel like. Yow!
By now, I know you must be wondering: "Kim, how on Earth did you wind up in a tank with a beluga and, more importantly, how can I do this, too?"
Mystic Aquarium Beluga Encounter Program Review
Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut, began offering its Beluga Encounter Program in 2000. Aquarist Kristine Magao, the trainer who led our group of four into the tank, explained that Mystic Aquarium is one of only two facilities in the country that offers visitors an opportunity to touch and interact with belugas. The other is SeaWorld in Texas.
"It is a very unique program," Magao said, adding: "One of our main goals in doing this program is educating people about belugas."
Offered daily from May through October, Beluga Encounter sessions begin with a 20-minute orientation, during which participants don waders over their clothing to keep them relatively warm and dry during their time in the tank. Belugas, which are not endangered, are most commonly found in Arctic and Sub-Arctic waters, so as you might imagine, the water in the tank is on the chilly side.
After learning a bit about the whales, plus some important tips for how to shuffle along when waist-deep in waders so as not to tip over and fall into the deep part of the tank, it was time for us to meet Kela, one of three belugas that live at Mystic Aquarium. All have Inuit names, and Kela, short for Kelalukak, which means, "white one who leads," was the smallest at the time of my visit. She seemed larger than life to me, so I can't imagine how I would have felt face-to-face with a 2,100-pound male whale.
During the course of our half-hour in the water, Kela was amazingly cooperative in allowing us to touch her tail, fin and back, to look right into her blowhole, and to pat her "melon"—the fatty, rounded structure at the top of her head, which changes shape as she emits her repertoire of sounds. Kela was quite chatty and seemed happy to have company. Magao said, "Kela tends to be very vocal; she cheers herself on." The white whale's most playful moments and most gossipy-sounding intonations were definitely shared with Magao.
"I love these animals that I work with," the trainer said. "You form a relationship with them."
High Fives and Hugs
In addition to our hands-on exploration of whale anatomy, we also had an opportunity to see Kela exhibit behaviors typical of belugas. Magao stressed that the whales are not taught "tricks" but are instead conditioned to respond to certain cues with behaviors that one might observe in the wild.
Beluga Encounter groups are limited to six people, and participants must be at least five feet tall. There were three other women in my group, and I'll be honest: We all approached our first close encounter with a beluga whale with a bit of trepidation. Magao said that it is rare for someone who has registered for the program to back out completely, though some do refuse to touch the whale, and that's perfectly OK.
"People warm up toward the end of the session," she said, and it was easy to understand why. Kela's friendly and playful demeanor soon had us all shuffling confidently to the very edge of the ledge where we stood for the program. One at a time, we followed instructions: Bring your right hand up to your shoulder, then bring it down rapidly in a diagonal motion in front of your body. Kela responded by surging up into the air with her fin extended to give us each a high five.
To say that my encounter with this giant of the sea was intimate is an understatement. While my cold, wet fingers were ready for a reprieve, it was with reluctance that we each took our turns opening our arms wide and bending forward at the waist, waiting for Kela to ascend for a good-bye embrace.
Book Your Beluga Encounter Experience
If you would like to learn more about these fascinating mammals and maybe even climb into the tank for an unforgettable opportunity to appreciate their gentle majesty, plan a visit to Mystic Aquarium, which is open daily year-round. Visitors can always observe the whales in their exhibit tank. Those who would like to participate in the Beluga Encounter Program can register on-site if space is available, but if you have your heart set on hugging a whale, you should make a reservation in advance, particularly during the busy summer months.
As of 2018, the price for the Beluga Encounter Program including a professional photo of your encounter is $179 for non-members and $169 for Mystic Aquarium members. You must also pay the aquarium's regular admission rate on the date of your visit. Another unique offering—Paint with a Whale—is slightly more affordable at $139 for non-members ages 13 and up, and you'll walk away with a one-of-a-kind souvenir of your encounter.
Reservations can be made online, or call 860-572-5955. You may also purchase a gift certificate for the program if you would like to give someone an unexpected and very memorable gift.
Mystic Aquarium is located just off I-95 at exit 90 in Mystic, Connecticut.