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In the tank with SeaWorld San Diego's beluga whales

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Published: August 11, 2008 at 12:02 PM

SAN DIEGO -- Here's the first thing I learned about beluga whales.

They swim in cold water. Really cold. Like "oh my God, when people talk the icy hand of death, this what they mean" cold.

"You'll start feeling the cold around the fourth step," Mike Price, a SeaWorld trainer and my guide at the park's Wild Arctic Interaction, told me as I walked down the steps into the attraction's beluga whale tank. Yep, he was right. As my wetsuit-clad body hit the fourth step into the pool, the alarms went off in my brain.

"You idiot! Get out. You are not a popsicle. You do not belong here."

I clenched my teeth, then tried to relax my shoulders enough to turn my head and look over toward the three magnificent white beluga whales circling just a few feet away. My body wasn't sold yet.

"Don't you remember 'Moby Dick'?" my hypothalamus screamed. "What happened to those guys who tried to hang with a white whale? Even if we get through the cold, you don't want a piece of that!"

At that moment, ego took over: "Quit wimping," I told myself. "Gut it out and get in there."

Six other SeaWorld San Diego visitors and I spent about about a half-hour in the park's beluga whale tank last week as part of the park's Wild Arctic Interaction program. The program, which costs $170 on top of park admission, includes a guided backstage tour of several other animals from the Wild Arctic attraction, including a pair of arctic foxes, ring and harbor seals, a 3,300-pound walrus and a 11-foot polar bear. (We saw the polar bear from behind a steel cage wall and security glass. No one swims with the polar bears. No one who lives long, anyway.)

But the highlight of the program is the in-tank experience with the beluga whales. SeaWorld provides a wetsuit and an individual locker room for changing in and out of the suit. There's even an instruction video in the room, showing you how to put on the wetsuit, and attendants outside to help you zip up. Because unless you are a contortionist, you ain't zipping up the back of that suit without help.

Here's a tip: Don't rush to the be the first out of your dressing room. No one's going anywhere until all participants are in their suits, and there's no joy in waiting outside, on asphalt, in 80-plus degrees sun, wearing a black wetsuit for 10 minutes. Take your time.

Trainers Mike Price and Mitzi Synnott rejoined us as we gathered behind the stage door leading into the whales' exhibit tank. Two other visitors and I went with Mike, the other five followed Mitzi.

The shock of the 50-degree water lasted only a moment, thanks to the wetsuit, and so long as I followed my "Pirates of the Caribbean" training ("Please keep your hands and arms out of the water at all times!"), my body felt comfortable. We stood on a waist-deep, steel-mesh ledge on the edge of the 600,000-gallon tank, as other SeaWorld trainers sent the whales over to each group, one at a time. The odd whale out stayed with another trainer, who addressed the watching crowd of "normal" tourists, including my wife and our kids.

Ferdinand was the first over to our group. Mike had Ferdinand offer us each his fin for us to grasp with our hand. Then he had Ferdinand roll over so that we could rub the skin on his firm, rubbery flukes.

Mike explained that beluga whales lack a dorsal fin, which faster-swimming whales, such as the orcas, use both for stability in the water and shedding heat. The slow-moving, cold-water-dwelling belugas need neither, he explained.

We also felt Ferdinand's head (technically, the melon), which felt like gelatin and, Mike explained, which belugas can move and harden by blowing air in its sinuses.

"Here's a great trick," Mike said as Ferdinand rose out of the water three feet in front of us. "Watch Ferdinand roll his tongue." We watched, as Ferdinand drenched us with a mouthful of seawater. Ah, yes, this might be a small-group, hands-on animal interaction, but it is still a SeaWorld show. You're gonna get wet.

Then we met Nanuq, then Allua. We played with each, holding their tails, pushing them back and rewarding them by feeding them fish after every successful move. Mike even let us play "trainer," showing us the moves he uses to direct the whales into various tricks. (Though, of course, I suspect that the whales just ignored us in favor of following Mike.) I soon lost all track of time, and noticed the tense looks on all the other participants' faces had been replaced with a bunch of goofy grins.

So what is this: A 21st century animal minstrel show for rich tourists, or something more meaningful?

"The Wild Arctic interaction is unique in that it allows you to meet face-to-face with animals from a part of the world that you're never ever going to go," Mike said to me after we'd left the pool. Indeed, just two weeks ago, a pod of dolphins swam a few dozen yards away from my family when we were swimming in the ocean off San Clemente. But I'm never going get that close to a beluga whale in the wild. (And if I did, I wouldn't get to enjoy it for long, because either the hypothermia, or the polar bears, would soon finish me off.)

"When people get in that pool, when they see that animal up close for the first time, it's like 'Whoa,'" Mike said. I think I picked a different expletive, but my brain was frozen at that moment, so I can't be sure.

"That 'whoa' connection is the biggest part of my job. I mean, we've heard about the loss of arctic ice pack, about the loss of habitat up there, but if people can say, 'Hey, I remember meeting Ferdinand at SeaWorld,' then those people know the animals that are affected by climate change. They remember them. Otherwise, without that experience, those people might not care as much about the loss of the beluga whales or the polar bears."

It's a strong point. Entertainment educates. It's the same principle that makes "The Daily Show" powerful political commentary. To hit 'em in the head, aim for the heart.

Back in the pool, Mike had asked us to line up so that Allua could wave her tail "good-bye" to us. Like the sucker I am, I waded over right next to her tail for the best look. One, two, three...

Splash. Gallons of icy seawater flew off her tail and across my face. I couldn't stop myself. I laughed.

Like, I said, it's a SeaWorld show. Someone's gotta get soaked.

Previously: Backstage with SeaWorld's trainers

Readers' Opinions

From Anthony Murphy on August 11, 2008 at 4:39 PM
Excellent Account of your harrowing tale to death defying encounters with those artic creatures.

It sounds like a good time and speaks volumes about extra things you can do at theme parks to not make it always stale. I did the Behind the Scenes at Disney World and was greatly impressed.

I didn't catch it in the article, but how long was it and is there any requirements (like age, ability, sanity)? If there is not big requirements, thats one up on the Living Seas Tour at EPCOT. You need to be a diver for that!

$170 sounds like alot, but pretty good compared to Disney World's kind.

From Iris Hernandez on August 11, 2008 at 3:50 PM
Freakin' Hilarious Robert!!! LOVED that report...I was really laughing hard at the comments you made while going into the water. Hopefully next year i'll be able to do the same things at Sea World Orlando. Keep up the great work. :) :)
From James Rao on August 11, 2008 at 4:14 PM
Thanks, Robert for both of your behind-the-scenes reports on SeaWorld. I found both reports entertaining and informative. I guess that's why we pay you the big bucks! ;)
From Robert Niles on August 11, 2008 at 4:34 PM
According to SeaWorld's Animal Interactions reservations page, participants must be at least 10 years old and 48 inches tall and "in good health." And you have to bring your own swimsuit to wear under the wetsuit.
From Don Neal on August 12, 2008 at 2:08 PM
Great story Robert, keep it up.
From Scottland Jacobson on August 15, 2008 at 3:31 PM
You get to do all the cool stuff! Having done dolphin encounters several times, I was completely unaware you could swim with belugas. I'm signing up for a trip to San Diego!

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