Sunday, September 23, 2007

Whale watching

Today, while Aunt Alicia babysat Owen at her home in Atlanta, Rob and Will and I made our first-ever trip to the the Georgia Aquarium.

The highlight of the morning was a long session of beluga whale-watching. Will and I crouched on the floor, noses nearly touching the glass enclosing the giant tank, and watched the sea mammals for a good 15 minutes. It was my first encounter with belugas and I was mesmerized. They employ a range of facial expressions but look as if they are smiling much of the time -- and they are the only whale with a flexible neck, so they seem to be nodding at you pleasantly as they swoop by, their albino bodies so magestic in an ocean where white is a rarity. Several times they headed directly for Will and me, until we were separated by nothing but a few inches of tank and water.

I learned that mama belugas do more to care for their calves both in utero and after birth than most human mothers these days. After a 12- to 14-month gestation period a mama beluga nurses her newborn calf for about two years. (How I would love to witness the art of nursing while swimming...)

There were no calves in the tank (I borrowed this photo from the Shedd Aquarium Web site): just the resident male, Nico, and three females on longterm loan from the New York Aquarium. One of the ladies, Maris, has excited the mating instincts of Nico. So we got to see a bit of gentle whale bumping.
And although only one of the females was a seasoned mother (Maris’ mother in fact), they all seemed so maternal, so wise, so beautiful as they swept around in the water. Rob thought their smiling faces resembled Owen’s somehow. A combination of the bald head and his general sweetness perhaps? I got almost misty-eyed watching those beautiful warm-blooded, warm-hearted creatures and thinking about Owen, separated from me now, and his big brother beside me – captivated as I was as we communed with the whales.
Postscript: Nothing like shameless marketing to cap a mystical encounter with marine animals. The Georgia Aquarium forces visitors to exit through the gift shop (so as toddlers like Will shout “I want that penguin," their non-indulging parents -- like Rob and I -- have to hustle toward the outdoors and look for big building distractions, while the more obliging variety have to wait in an extraodarily long checkout line to purchase yet another overpriced toy they don't need). Once in a while, can’t we buy an experience without a little stuffed memento to accompany it?

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