As reported by Jesse Ciletti, Mystic Aquarium’s Trainer of Cetaceans and Pinnipeds
January 7, 2018: I arrived in Alaska on Friday, December 29; droving down to Seward the following morning. It had just snowed that day and the snowcapped mountains were just the Alaskan setting I had pictured in my mind! I also lucked out and got out of Mystic before the icy blizzard arrived!
I met up with fellow trainer, Chrissy Metzger Barth at the Alaska SeaLife Center that day. She showed me what she and the other trainers and caregivers have been doing in their care for Tyonek. Currently, Tyonek is doing well but still requires 24 hour observations. I, along with two other trainers -one from Georgia Aquarium and one from Shedd Aquarium – have a solo eight (8)-hour shift comprised of behavioral observations, bottle feeding and tactile/enrichment sessions.
These sessions are imperative to provide Tyonek social interaction since beluga whales are very social animals. They also are important to build trust between Tyonek and his caregivers so that husbandry procedures go smoothly and efficiently.
When caring for a beluga whale, regardless of its age and size, animal care professional often use what is referred to as a stretcher to provide support during curative or routine and preventive care. During feeding sessions, from a waist deep platform we introduce a stretcher to Tyonek. He is not directed to swim into the stretcher at this point; it is simply to build a reinforcement history. In this manner he will not become conditioned to anticipate a medical procedure every time he sees the stretcher. This approach has definitely been working. During a recent CT scan, Tyonek swam right into the stretcher and allowed us to bring him out of the water with ease.
I think my favorite part of this trip so far has been being able to watch the staff here at Alaska SeaLife Center at their best. The staff here is a well-oiled machine and Tyonek couldn’t be in better hands.
Day-in and day-out, I watch Tyonek becoming more active, investigating his environment and the enrichment we provide and learning about his “whale-ness”. He is starting to move his melon and blowhole in different ways and beginning to vocalize under and above the water. The veterinarians here say his health is improving and you can definitely see it in his behavior. I am excited to see what he does next!