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.
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.