A few days before the conclusion of my internship with the Aquarium Collections Department, I had the opportunity to shadow one of the Marine Mammals staff members for half a day. What a great experience! Each day starts off at 7:30 with a department meeting where everyone reviews their schedule (posted daily) and announcements are made - the daily routine of each staff member changes frequently as people rotate around working with different animals and in different habitats at different times. This system seemed to foster a notable "team" feeling, rather than a secular "my area" vs other people's area competition. Another benefit - I was able to see almost every area of the marine mammals department in half a day because my guide was scheduled to work in every exhibit that day.

We began the day with a penguin feed. Each animal has a series of color-coded bands on one of their wings. Each color corresponds to a number. The penguin in the front is #16, a juvenile who hatched at the Shedd earlier this year. After her first molt, she will display the yellow ear tuft feathers characteristic of adult Rockhoppers. The staff would use the numbers as proper nouns to call individuals. Sixteen responded to her name and was exceptionally friendly, she actually jumped into my lap and perched on my arm. Quite a balancing act for a bird with webbed feet!

At 10 AM we moved on to prepare for the first of 4 daily dolphin shows. To keep the dolphins from becoming bord, they work with a different trainer and preform a different series of tricks for each show. This routine is great for the dolphins but quite a task for the staff. My guide changed into a Shedd wetsuit and we met the other trainers in the prep room. On a whiteboard, dolphin assignments and trick routines were listed. For three minutes, all five trainers sat staring at the board muttering their routines over and over - during the show the routines of each dolphin must be perfectly synchronized with the announcer and the other dolphins. Often times the shows involved both dolphins and belugas (not at the same time), adding yet another layer of complexity.

Food for each dolphin is carefully inspected, cut, and premeasured before each session. When the feedroom workers are done preparing a bucket, they set the animal's symbol or "target" on top of the food. The target is also used to call the animal - each dolphin recognizes its target and knows to come to it when its placed in the water.

The dolphins can get full during a show but still want to participate in the act. To remedy this problem, the caretakers have developed alternate methods of positive reinforcement. Misting them with a squirt bottle is one of these methods; clapping is another.

To acclimate the dolphins and belugas to the look and presence of the ultrasound equipment, this old broken monitor is left out and moved to various locations around the exhibit. During the non-show training sessions, the animals are individually called over to the monitor and rubbed with a mock ultrasound wand.

We also worked with the belugas. Naya was pregnant and nearly due - notice her rather enormous girth! You could actually see her stomach move as the baby "kicked." She gave birth to a stillborn male calf on September 20th - apparently common for first-time mothers, but still a huge disappointment.

Click here to see more amazing beluga photos!

Return to Main Page