Some Ideas Sound So Out of This World They Have to be Great: Gentle Giant Interaction at Sea World

Beluga whales are the gentle giants of the sea and at SeaWorld San Diego, I had the opportunity of a lifetime to interact with these beautiful creatures. Between 12 and 14 feet long and weighing about 2000 pounds, belugas are roughly twice the size of bottlenose dolphins. These attentive animals played and interacted with their surroundings and us, seeming almost more timid than I felt. SeaWorld is one of only six facilities in the world to host beluga whales, and through the Beluga Interaction Program, I got a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get in the water with these playful creatures. It’s one thing to see them twirling about behind a giant plexiglas tank, but it was a whole other world to have all 2,000 pounds wading in front of me, begging me to reach out and play.

After checking in at the Beluga Interaction Program desk, we made our way to the Wild Arctic exhibit. There, we were greeted by a member of SeaWorld staff who took us behind the scenes of the Wild Arctic for our first encounter – a walrus. We were given the chance to feed, touch and interact with a large, male walrus before meeting Arctic foxes and a polar bear. This behind-the-scenes introduction was a welcomed addition to the program. I had no idea that I was going to touch and feed the ever-feared walrus, but I cautiously, and literally, jumped at the opportunity, which you can see in the photos.

After our behind-the-scenes introduction, we were escorted to our private locker rooms, shown to our custom-fit wetsuits (the staff asked for our weight, height and shoe size when we booked the tour to ensure a snug fit) and booties and given the time to prepare for our next adventure. As the crowd formed at the beluga whale tank, Darren and I, along with five other guests, made our way through a tunnel into what looked like a frozen ice land. We were taken by our handler to the edge of the water tank holding the belugas and we prepared to get in!

At the instruction of the handler, we stood on a man-made shelf submerged under water that left us waist deep in the chilly arctic habitat simulated water. The water was about 55 degrees, but between my custom-fit wetsuit and the rush from getting in the water with whales, the chilly temp was barely an after-thought.

It was a little unnerving standing next to such large mammals, but they were so docile and playful, I quickly learned to relax and enjoy the unique experience. These beluga whales were like little children. They loved to play, they loved attention, and they loved to be pet and rubbed. The frigid waters washed away my worries and left me with a serene feeling.

The belugas spun in place, floated on their backs to be pet and rubbed on the belly and vice versa, gave kisses on the cheek, waved, and made a variety of noises, depending on the hand signal.

A staff photographer snapped off evidence of our interaction along the way and regardless of the price, we knew we needed to have the life-lasting memories in photo form. After all, how many opportunities would I get to have a picture of a beluga whale kissing my cheek?

Once the encounter was over and we exited the exhibit, we were brought back to the building containing the locker rooms where we freshened up for the rest of our stay at SeaWorld. By the time we arrived back at the Beluga Interaction Program front desk, our CD full of pictures was ready to be purchased. $89 is a steep price to pay for a CD with 85 photos, but it was well worth the expense.

With only eight slots per beluga session, it was an intimate experience that I will not soon forget, especially now that I have the photos to continue the memory of a lifetime.  Few places in the world offer such an up-close, unique interaction with these animals.

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46 thoughts on “Some Ideas Sound So Out of This World They Have to be Great: Gentle Giant Interaction at Sea World

    • What a great day and an even more unique experience! I didn’t even know it was possible to swim with beluga whales, yet I was able to participate in such an adventure by taking a short one hour drive to San Diego. As soon as my baby girl is old enough, I’ll have her in the water next to me.

      Thanks for reading and commenting; it’s appreciated.

      Lesley

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    • I was a little bit scared considering they can weigh about 3,000 pounds but once I stepped into the water and witnessed first hand how timid they were, i quickly loosened up. Even quick hand movements made them swim away.

      We were divided into two groups and a 10 year old girl was grouped with my husband and I. If she could easily reach out and connect with these beautiful animals, I think it’s possible for anyone.

      Thanks for reading and commenting,

      Lesley

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  1. In the Florida Keys the Dolphin Research Center offers a bunch of interactive sessions with their dolphins (including swiming like you did with the whales). It looks really cool but we skipped the swim because of the cost (about double Sea World’s off-season price). Next time we’re in FL, we’ll have to check this out. Thanks

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    • It can be expensive, but it’s worth the money. It’s rare to find something new and adventurous. It’s a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

      I love your photo in Photo of the Day: Stone Arch Bridge. Great perspective.

      Keep the comments coming; they are appreciated.

      Lesley

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    • I hope you get to experience it! It was unique and eye-opening. Belugas are not something to be feared’ they are playful and funny and they love attention.

      Are you still in California now? I’d be happy to show you around if you are in southern Cali.

      Thanks for reading,

      Lesley

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      • Hahaha I’m in Australia 😉 The adventures I wrote of US was a year old, but it was better late than never in recounting all that happened in (so far) our trip of a lifetime.
        Will definitely try to catch up with you if we travel to US again 🙂

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      • This will be out of whack – for some reason I can’t find the reply button to your last comment below.
        Yes, I do have a trip coming up – hubby and I are going to Philippines with his older brother, wife, nice and nephew, and his Mum for 3.5 weeks this Christmas-New Year. It’s where he’s from so we’re going to meet a lot of cousins/relatives.

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  2. On my 44th birthday (Longer ago than I care to admit) my wife treated me to swimming with the dolphins at the Florida Sea World’s Discovery Cove. It was one of the best things I have ever done in my life. If I ever get to come back to California I want to try

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    • Hopefully I can not only tell my daughter about swimming with the belugas, but actually swim with them again with her by my side. We moved to California because of the vast experiences that exist here. I can offer her unique adventurous every weekend that were only available to me during vacations. I want to show her the world.

      The clothing on your site is stunning; I’m in love with the Mens Italian Cashmere Sweater with elbow pads. I always found elbow pads to be “Clark Kent” sexy.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment; it’s appreciated.

      Lesley

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  3. I’m so jealous, I would totally love to pet a beluga; they’re pretty much my favorite cetacean. My boyfriend used to work with dolphins and sea otters and such, though, and he said they have really bad breath! Enjoying your blog– it’s very inspiring and I’d like my life to be that kick-ass! Gotta get started on making a bucket list.

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    • The water was freezing, even with a wetsuit, and they did have really bad breath; after all, they eat rarw, dead fish, but the experience is so amazing that those thoughts barely enter your mind.

      Good luck with your blog and thanks for reading,

      Lesley

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    • The whole experience can be seen as expensive, but most beautiful, adventurous experiences are expensive. I never regret it afterwords; I’m always left with a unique, special memory that will last forever.

      I love your photos, especially Court of the Myrtles, the Alhambra. Thank you for posting so often.

      Lesley

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  4. What an amazing experience and the photos were definitely worth the 89 bucks! I’ve had the opportunity to swim with wild dolphins off the coast of Hawaii. My friends and I were snorkeling and we came across 8 dolphins. It was exhilarating and frightening at the same time. I thought they were huge… I can’t imagine being next to a beluga whale. Thanks for sharing your adventures.

    Erica

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    • Regardless of the price of the photos, I would have paid it. It’s a rare experience that few people get to have.

      I’ve never actually seen a dolphin close by while I was swimming. I think I would have felt the same frightening exhilaration, especially when I first saw the fin in the water.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment; it’s appreciated.

      Lesley

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    • I went to SeaWorld when I was a child as well and I wanted to bring that sense of adventure and imagination back to my adult life. It was an amazing day and swimming with the belugas made it perfect. I’d love to return with my daughter as soon as she’s old enough.

      Thanks for reading and commenting; it’s appreciated.

      Lesley

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  5. VERY cool. I didn’t know about the possibility of interacting in the water with beluga whales before reading this entry – and getting to feed a walrus, neat! I love dolphins and I have a feeling I’d love the beluga whales as well 🙂 Reminds me of the Raffi song about “Baby Beluga” I heard a lot growing up!

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  6. Not sure if you’ve had the opportunity, but at Epcot Center, Disney lets certified divers dive in their tank.
    they start off the trip by a tour back stage of the facility and some of the research and other work they do, the kitchens, the study areas.
    Then they set you up with your dive gear (unlimited tanks), and after a quick briefing (Don’t swim there because it will interfere with the Finding Nemo display), they set you lose to swim in the tank with an incredible variety of sea life – sea turtles, mantas, sharks.
    You can also swim up to the window the genral public views through.
    I don’t remember the cost for the tour/dive/photo cd, but it was worth every penny.
    If you haven’t, I hope you get a chance to do that dive.
    (and now I’m all excited thinking about it that I will probably post it on my blog – but you’ll get credit for the inspiration)

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  7. These are great photos! Belugas are fantastic creatures, are they not? So beautiful. When I was a Girl Scout troop leader (many moons ago) we took our girls to Sea World for the overnight experience. We slept in the Beluga encounter, with them and their tank as our night light and bed time show. An unforgetable experience! Thank you for sharing yours!

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    • That sounds amazing! We saw people that were doing to over-night experience and my first thought was, “I can’t wait to do that with my child”. As soon as she’s old enough, I will take her to experience it. One of the best things about living in California is the access to amazing experiences and adventures.

      Did you get to go in the water with the whales?

      Lesley

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  8. How cool! I got to kayak with some dolphins off the coast of South Carolina a few years ago, and I can still remember how lovely and peaceful and exhilirating it was when they would surface maybe a foot away from the kayak and I could hear them exhale. What did the belugas feel like when you touched them???

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  9. Pingback: 2012 Bucket List – Adventure Awaits! | Indulge – Travel, Adventure, & New Experiences

  10. What an amazing life your daughter is going to have – and how much fun you’ll have, watching her learn about this beautiful world. Thank you for sharing.

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  11. Hi Lesley,
    Thanks for taking the time to like the post on my blog, Toothfish Tales. I have just had a look at your blog and it is great. I am a bit of an adrenaline junky myself so I will be sure to keep up to date with your blog. We are looking at going to Seaworld later in the year as a part of my scholarship – cant wait!

    Cheers
    Rhys

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  12. Pingback: Some Ideas Sound So Out of This World They Have to be Great: Gentle Giant Interaction at Sea World | jim caldwell

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