Saturday, March 21, 2009

Animal Planet

Volunteering at the Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration definitely has its perks. Yes, I have to do some sort of disgusting stuff, like clean the skimmers and handle raw fish (really, the fish part is not that gross - at least, not to me). However, when I am not prepping their food, I get to hang out with these guys:

Coco, our biggest and oldest California sea lion. He weighs about 800 pounds right now and he is over 20 years old;

Surfer, our teenage sea lion. I secretly think Surfer is our best-looking boy in the marine theater;

Hut/Boomerang,our youngest and most playful. Hut is about two and a half and he is a handful sometimes. He loves to play with the toys we make him out of old kitty litter bins, PVC, etc.

The sea lions have always been my favorites, and I knew when I started volunteering as a docent that I eventually wanted to volunteer on a sea lion exhibit. And I have no intention of ever giving up my post unless I absolutely have to.

But recently, I have been introduced to a new experience at the aquarium: beluga whales.

Belugas are new to me - the volunteer spots on that exhibit are extremely hard to get, and I didn't think I was particularly interested. But the more time I spent watching the belugas, the more I knew I wanted to see them up close. Luckily for me, I got my chance when the aquarium let the volunteers do a beluga contact session in preparation for the program they open to the public.

In the water with the trainer and our beluga

Noe and I got to put on waders and get in the water with a beluga and a trainer. The trainer showed us different behaviors they train with the whales and gave us the opportunity to do some hand signals with them. We got to touch the whales as well. We were literally less than a foot away from our whale the whole time.

Noe and I in our waders

Asking the beluga for a "high target"

As an added bonus, we were with one of the trainers from Shedd aquarium in Chicago (Shedd has their belugas and dolphins in Mystic while the renovate their exhibit) and our whale is the mother of a calf, who kept poking his little head out of the water to see what was going on. Baby belugas are probably one of the cutest sights on the planet:

Miki, our baby beluga:
the babies are born gray and lighten up as they get older

I liked the belugas so much that when a spot recently opened on our whale enrichment team at the aquarium, I interviewed for it. The whale enrichment team is a team of volunteers who essentially play with the whales every day for an hour. We take different shifts one day a week. So once a week, I will be going to the aquarium before work and making sure our whales get their intellectual stimulation for the day in the form of PVC toys, bubbles, feeder balls, musical instruments, etc. I went for the first time this week and I loved it. It is definitely worth getting up that extra hour early.

The aquarium has a new docent class starting up soon; you can fill out an application at the volunteer section of their website. If you're in the area, I urge you to check it out!

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