National Geographic : 1994 Jun
eyes, the 12-foot-long beluga whale glided up and braked to a stop on the other side of a large window at the Van couver Aquarium in Canada. Then he did a strange thing. From the blowhole atop his head he slowly blew a big mushroom-shaped globe of air into the water. Backing away from the rising bub ble, he extended his mobile, pursed lips and sucked it into his mouth. Next the whale puffed the air back into the water ahead of him. He eyed his creation, which expanded as it rose. Then he matter of-factly sucked it in again. Not finished yet, he backed away a little and blew the air out once more. This time he nodded his head sharply downward, sending an invisible boil of water against the expand ing bubble. It instantly became a twisting bracelet, shining and expanding until it began to break into flattened, rising spheres. Then he sucked up the bubbles, pumped his flukes, and was off. I didn't know what to think. In four dec ades of studying porpoises, dolphins, and whales all over the world, I'd never seen any thing quite like it. Many animals engage in play, but this beluga seemed to be showing an interest in something more like art. I'd watched belugas before, not only in captivity but also in the wild, but I'd never studied them seriously. Most belugas live in the icy Arctic, where only a few cetol ogists work. These scientists, in cooperation with native peoples and governments, have mainly done management studies to deter mine whether native hunting has harmfully reduced beluga populations. But I was more interested in the beluga's personality and way of life. It seemed to be a wholly different animal from the marine mammals I know best. For 25 years I've KENNETH S. NORRIS is a retired professor of natu ral history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, whose latest book is The HawaiianSpinner Dolphin. FLIP NICKLIN has photographed several whale species for the GEOGRAPHIC. The pair's most recent collaboration in our pages was "Dol phins in Crisis" (September 1992).