Mariachi Band Serenades Music-Loving Beluga Whale

Oh. My. God. Lora Rivera just shared the most adorable link with me.  Check out this article from, and you gotta watch this fantastic video of a mariachi-lovin' beluga whale at Connecticut's Mystic Aquarium.

Analysis by Jennifer Viegas
Wed Aug 3, 2011 01:25 PM ET

A playful beluga whale named Juno recently interacted with a mariachi band that played at a wedding held at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut.

Kelly O'Neil, senior trainer of beluga whales at the aquarium, told me that Juno was hanging out in his 750,000-gallon tank when the wedding festivities began. Juno shares the tank with two other female beluga whales.

The whales can choose to go up to the window, to watch any human happenings, or they can retreat to quiet, private areas, which include two back pools that are out of sight.

"Juno is extremely playful, so the mariachi band must have piqued his curiosity," O'Neil said. "The two females might have stayed away since he was hogging the window."

Beluga whales are known as the "canaries of the sea," due to their musical vocalizations. (You can listen to some in this beautiful clip.) O'Neil said the whales can hear outside of their tank, when they get up to the window, so there's little doubt that Juno was aware of the music.

He is also clearly aware of the mariachi players' movements, even dancing along with them as he mirrors their head bobs and sways.

O'Neil said Juno was previously trained to move his head up and down, as well as from side to side, so these motions are familiar to him. (No trainer was coaching Juno during the mariachi moment.) For enrichment outside of training sessions, the whales are additionally exposed to all sorts of different things, from bubbles to TV shows (I hope they're watching Discovery!) just to keep the whales engaged and entertained. They have active minds that need stimulation.

In the wild, beluga whales are "curious from afar" and "skittish," O'Neil said. It's no wonder. Our hunting of them and harming of their habitat has reduced their populations in the wild. The IUCN Red List classifies them as "near threatened."

Juno and his tank buddies, however, are doing their part to help turn the tide. Through public education programs at such aquariums and other conservation efforts, people like us are made more aware of these magnificent, intelligent animals.

My First 200 Words Have Made it to the Finals + Belugas, Belugas, Belugas!

The final week of Deana Barnhart's amazing "Gearing Up to Get an Agent" Blogfest is drawing to a close, and the first 200 words of my young adult novel, The Mermaid Gene, have made it to the finals!

Wow, after last week's whirlwind, I am so honored to be included in the Top Ten again. The other finalists are amazing, and I can hardly wait for their books to take flight! Check out their entries here: Kathleen Rushall Interview Part 2 and Novel Contest Finalists, and also check out the great interview with one of this week's judges, literary agent Kathleen Rushall. Thanks again to Deana for organizing and being the maestro of this event; this has been so much fun!

Because my first 200 words are already listed on the post below, I will resist reprinting them in favor of waxing poetic about beluga whales for a few minutes.  My novel's main character, Kai Murphy, is sent to Alaska to study them, and they just happen to be some of my favorite animals on Earth.  (Convenient coincidence, don't you think??)

Courtesy of  Wikimedia Commons
Although Kai's research team is fictional, Cook Inlet's beluga whales are very real.  They were listed as endangered in October of 2008, and I became obsessed with their struggles when I moved to Alaska in June of 2007.  I volunteered on a beluga whale outreach team until I got my job at the Alaska Zoo, and I even submitted public comments during a scary NOAA public forum about the designation of critical habitat during the summer of 2009!

(I won't get political or preachy on you here, though.  The beluga whales' struggles are complicated and multi-dimensional, and beluga whale management is a sensitive and sometimes polarizing issue.  If you'd like to learn more about the belugas and form your own opinion, here's a great link to their struggles and backstory, courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: Conservation Plan for the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale.)

I will, however, give you a little background on why I love beluga whales so much. :)

Courtesy of  Wikimedia Commons
Recognized by their distinctive white skin, Cook Inlet’s beluga whales are a well-known Alaskan icon. Growing to lengths of 10-15 feet and weights of 3,300lbs, they are characterized by robust, stocky bodies. A thick layer of blubber insulates them against the cold, and the absence of a dorsal fin allows them to move just below ice sheets without obstruction.

Cook Inlet’s belugas have been separated from the belugas of the Alaska’s North Slope for thousands of years, and they have developed many key biological differences—like enlarged foreheads and highly advanced echolocation systems, which they use to navigate through the inlet’s murky waters.

Courtesy of  Wikimedia Commons
Did you know?? 
  1. The English name "beluga" comes from the Russian word belukha, which translates into "white." Belugas are also known as white whales. At birth, beluga calves are generally dark gray. They gradually lighten with age, and upon reaching maturity, attain the white coloration characteristic of adult belugas. This white coloration protects belugas from predators by camouflaging them among the icebergs and ice floes of northern seas.
  2. A highly social species, beluga whales are extremely vocal. Long ago, scientists and sailors gave
    beluga whales the nickname "sea canaries," due to the birdlike sounds these whales make.
  3. Belugas are among the few whales that have un-fused neck vertebrae. This feature makes their necks quite flexible and gives their heads a wide range of motion.
  4. Belugas can swim both forward and, unlike most other whales, backward.
Wanna know more?  These four fun facts are courtesy of Sea World's ANIMAL BYTES, and you can learn more about beluga whales here: Sea World Beluga Whale Infobook.  Happy Reading!!

Areas of Cook Inlet Designated Critical Whale Habitat

WOOHOO!!!!! For the past several years (2007-present), I have been a very vocal supporter in the fight to get Anchorage's beluga whales a spot on the Endangered Species List. (Here's a great background article about the very long and very drawn out struggle the whales faced: NOAA Recommends Listing Cook Inlet Belugas Under Endangered Species Act.)

The whales were finally listed in 2008 after almost ten years of struggle, and the battle for the designation of critical habitat has been raging ever since. (I gathered up my nerve and even presented public comments during the summer of 2010... Yikes!)

I almost fainted when I saw this article in the April 9, 2011 issue of Anchorage Daily News. After years of struggle, it looks like the beluga whales FINALLY have their critical habitat.  (It's a very complicated issue--with lots of pros and cons on either side--and I'm not claiming a black and white stance on any of it.  For me, the decision came down to the science of the beluga's falling numbers, and I just pray the animals aren't already reproductively extinct.)

As a side note, I was so inspired by the time I spent working with Karla Dutton, Program Director for Alaska's branch of Defenders of Wildlife, that I actually built an entire novel around Cook Inlet's beluga whales.  And THAT novel is the novel I am currently in the process of submitting to agents. :)

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Areas of Cook Inlet designated critical whale habitat
ENDANGERED: Business is restricted to areas near Port of Anchorage, Point MacKenzie.


Published: April 9th, 2011 10:07 PM
Last Modified: April 9th, 2011 10:07 PM

Federal fishery managers on Friday designated large stretches of Cook Inlet as critical habitat for endangered beluga whales, leading to an outcry from political and business leaders that the regional economy will be strangled.

"That means no construction, drilling or dredging," House Speaker Mike Chenault said in a statement. "We were hoping to see the benefit of state participation in (oil) drilling this summer. Now? It's out the window."

Not quite, said the federal supervisor in Anchorage who speaks for the National Marine Fisheries Service on the issue, biologist Brad Smith.

"We're the stewards of the whales," Smith said. "What we're trying to do is avoid any activity or actions that are contrary to their ability to recover. That certainly does not mean all activity stops."

The habitat designation is a requirement of the federal Endangered Species Act that was all but ordained once Cook Inlet belugas were declared endangered in 2008. It covers 3,013 square miles of shoreline and marine area, including all of Kachemak Bay, all of upper Cook Inlet north from about Clam Gulch, and the west side shoreline of lower Cook Inlet.

A sliver of shoreline and water, encompassing the Port of Anchorage and Point MacKenzie, was excluded from the designated habitat on national security grounds. Military areas north of the port were excluded because of a pre-existing environmental agreement between the Defense Department and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Biologists say the Cook Inlet beluga population is a distinctive stock of the small, toothed whale famously known for its white color, though the young are gray, perhaps for protection from predators like killer whales. Cook Inlet had an estimated 1,300 belugas in 1979, a number that had shrunk to an estimated 278 by 2005. A 2008 survey showed a gain to about 375 animals, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in one of its reports on Cook Inlet belugas.

Smith, the federal biologist, said the only known cause for the decline was over-hunting. Natives in the Cook Inlet region, using aboriginal hunting rights, traditionally took a few whales every year with no effect on the population, Smith said. But in the 1970s and 1980s, he said, the migration of Natives from western and northern coastal areas of Alaska to Anchorage led to the unregulated hunting of perhaps 100 or more belugas a year, an unsustainable number.

By the time officials realized what was happening and hunting was banned, the population had declined to dangerously low levels, Smith said.

"We expected with the curtailment of the harvest that they would recover," Smith said. "It's disappointing they haven't."

State officials argued that the numbers were increasing and had urged the federal government to back off. Environmental organizations pressed for greater protection.

Once belugas were designated as threatened or endangered, the 1973 Endangered Species Act requires "we also address its critical habitat," Smith said. "It's a pretty basic concept that animals can't live without habitat."

Because of the range of concerns, the agency took an extra year to prepare its ruling, Smith said. The fisheries service received 135,463 individual comments, though 134,959 were on form letters, it said.

The goal of the rule isn't to lock up territory but to allow the species to recover, Smith said. Because belugas historically coexisted with the Cook Inlet oil industry and with dredging for the Port of Anchorage and other areas, there's no reason to prevent that activity from continuing, though officials might increase regulation of noise, discharges and other activity that could harass whales, Smith said.

In fact, captains of large ships and dredges report that belugas don't seem to care about their slow-moving presence, Smith said. It's small vessels, even jet skis, which maneuver quickly and erratically like killer whales, that cause problems for belugas, he said.

On the other hand, the city may have to improve its treatment of the sewage it dumps into Cook Inlet from Point Woronzof, Smith said. The city's disposal permit comes up for renewal this summer, and the EPA will have to take into consideration the effect of the lightly treated effluent on belugas, he said.

Bill Popp, president of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp., said he didn't think the critical habitat designation would halt economic growth but feared it would add another layer of permitting and bureaucracy to an already slow-moving federal regulatory process.

Years ago, Popp said, it took oil and gas ventures three to five years from the start of a project to reach production.

"That time frame is now seven to 10 years, and now, what will this do? Make eight to 11 years, nine to 12 years? It's more unnecessary delay and impediment," Popp said

Even if the federal government is efficient in its permitting, the designation will make it easier for opponents of a development project to bring a lawsuit, he said.

In one of its economic studies, NOAA optimistically said that the designation of critical habitat could actual improve conditions for the oil industry by making the area more attractive to workers.

"Employees of the industry may be willing to work in the area, in part, because of the natural beauty, environmental quality and outdoor recreational opportunities available," NOAA said, though it also acknowledged the benefit to industry of beluga habitat protection "is likely to be relatively small."