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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Explorations in an Aquarium

Air Date: Week of

As a fisherman, commentator Nancy Lord lives and works with the Beluga whales of Alaska’s Cook Inlet. But she didn’t really get to know the whales until a recent visit to an aquarium.


CURWOOD: Commentator Nancy Lord lives close to nature in Homer, Alaska, and fishes in waters that are home to beluga whales. Her affection for the creatures encouraged her to learn a few things about whales, and herself, during a recent visit to Chicago's Shedd Aquarium.

LORD: For 20 years my ideas about beluga whales have come from watching them while I fish. Gorgeous creatures, they rise from the silty waters of Alaska's Cook Inlet like smooth white arcs. I listen to the soft poofs of their breaths and pick out the bulges of their heads and the ribbed lines of their backs. But the water here is too muddy to see beneath the surface and the whales are always in traveling mode, moving on by. For all those years, I survived on glimpses and settled for mystery.

So when I visited Chicago recently, I decided to go for a close-up look. At the Shedd Aquarium, I found 5 beluga whales swimming lazily, round and round in clear blue water. I stood at a railing and observed every bit of their huge 15-foot whitenesses. I watched their blow holes snapping open and closed, and I scrutinized each dimple and dapple of skin.

On the lower level, through the glass walls, the view was even better. As the animals swam I watched their melons, the bulbous parts of their heads, changing shape. I knew they shifted the oily content of their melons as they echolocated. But I never imagined I could see it happen.

I watched them swim upside down and hang vertically and rub against one another. And for the first time I heard them broadcast over the aquarium sound system. They chirped, they clicked and tweeted and whistled. I felt like I was surrounded by birds in a tropical rainforest, only there was a submerged watery sound to all the chattering. I watched and listened to those whales for a long time. And I watched other people watching the whales. Most paused only long enough to say things like, "Look, belugas." Those who lingered for more than a few seconds tended to personalize the whales' movements, as in, "That one's trying to kiss me."

I started to feel discouraged. These magnificent animals sacrificed their real whale lives to swim in tanks for the elucidation of humankind, but were insufficiently appreciated. Then I remembered something I learned from the writings of Rachel Carson a long time ago. She wrote that understanding anything begins with the simple act of seeing. Who am I to say how much looking is enough? When it comes to knowing other creatures, we don't all find the same opportunities or share the same needs. Perhaps it is enough for people in our country's heartland to know the name beluga, and to be able to match it with a white swimming, even kissing, image.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Commentator Nancy Lord is author of Fish Camp: Life on the Alaskan Shore. She comes to us from member station KBBI in Homer, Alaska.



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