Cozy up with a beluga at new aquarium program

Maris splashed noisily, seemingly reveling in the hand rubs and cooing being bestowed on her.

After a few minutes of this attention-fest, Grayson, her junior male buddy, rocketed from the other side of the training pool, playfully poking his head between Maris and her trainer.

It may sound like a couple of puppies at play, but these mammals are hardly Rottweiler-size -- more like about 850 pounds each.

Starting Wednesday, guests willing to pony up a couple of Benjamins will have the opportunity for an up-close interaction with Grayson and Maris, as well as their beluga whale buddies at the Georgia Aquarium, Qinu and behemoth Beethoven.

The “Beluga & Friends Interactive Program” is a two-hour experience, about 30 minutes of which will likely be spent waist-high in 58-degree water, inches from the whales and well in proximity to provide some public affection (staying away from their eyes and blowholes, of course).

But since they are live animals and not animatronics plugged in to entertain on command, “every program will be different,” said Dennis Christen, curator of animal training and interactive programs at the aquarium. “The interaction could be sitting with a trainer on a ledge to learn behaviors [of the belugas]. Being in the water is the goal, but we don’t want to have a situation where we’re doing something not appropriate for the animals.”

The experience begins in a small classroom with an animal interactive specialist who spends about 20 minutes providing beluga background with a PowerPoint presentation (They’re nicknamed the “canaries of the sea” by sailors, typically live 25-30 years and are endangered.).

Liability waivers are signed and participants -- up to eight each in two daily sessions -- are sent to locker rooms to change into wet suits provided by the aquarium (bathing suits are also required).

A trainer -- on this day it was Erika Stuebing, a senior animal care and training specialist -- leads guests onto the top floor of the Georgia-Pacific Cold Water Quest Gallery, its lower portion the commonly used viewing window in the aquarium.

Along with the belugas, a separate area houses a pack of slippery, sweet-looking harbor seals. As part of the program, guests can also feed them, though, Christen noted, it could be penguins or sea otters up there instead.

Stuebing explained how the belugas were transported into the facility, pointing out the giant stretchers and pulleys in the room.

As Stuebing led her three participants onto a ridge in the chilly training pool, trainers headed to ledges on the opposite side, preparing to clean teeth and practice behaviors with three of the belugas as one moseyed toward the guests in the water and emitted a high-pitched gargling sound.

Christen said that in these weeks of preparing for the public launch, he has noticed the normally reserved Maris “blossom as a result of this interaction” and the always-playful Grayson show off even more.

“This has been dynamic for them,” Christen said of the belugas. “If we can have that kind of impact through this kind of experience, it validates why we exist.”

However, those who disagree with any direct interaction between the public and aquatic mammals see these types of programs as unnecessary.

Dr. Lori Marino, a senior lecturer in the neuroscience and behavioral biology program at Emory University, cites concerns about humans transmitting diseases to the whales and increasing their stress level.

“They now have to contend with people touching them and being in their home area and are dealing with more and more impositions on their time and space,” she said.

The Georgia Aquarium is one of six facilities in North America with belugas. Most of the others, including Sea Worlds in Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego, offer some type of interaction program.

Stuebing maintains that an important part of her job is building relationships with the whales and allowing others to do the same.

“I love introducing people to these magnificent creatures,” she said, “and hope it makes a connection with them when they think about recycling and conservation.”

“Beluga & Friends Interactive Program” at the Georgia Aquarium, 225 Baker St. N.W.

Programs held daily at 10 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. Cost is $224.95 or $205.95 for Annual Imagination Pass Members. Participants under 16 must be accompanied by a participating adult, and those under 18 must have program liability waiver and animal interactive program guidelines signed by parent or legal guardian. All participants must be 60 inches tall and weigh less than or equal to 300 pounds.

Info: 404-518-4000, www.georgiaaquarium.org.

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