Kelly O’Neil, senior trainer of beluga whales at the aquarium, told me that Juno was hanging out in his 750,000-gallon tank when the wedding festivities began. Juno shares the tank with two other female beluga whales.
The whales can choose to go up to the window, to watch any human happenings, or they can retreat to quiet, private areas, which include two back pools that are out of sight.
“Juno is extremely playful, so the mariachi band must have piqued his curiosity,” O’Neil said. “The two females might have stayed away since he was hogging the window.”
Beluga whales are known as the “canaries of the sea,” due to their musical vocalizations. O’Neil said the whales can hear outside of their tank, when they get up to the window, so there’s little doubt that Juno was aware of the music.
He is also clearly aware of the mariachi players’ movements, even dancing along with them as he mirrors their head bobs and sways.
O’Neil said Juno was previously trained to move his head up and down, as well as from side to side, so these motions are familiar to him. (No trainer was coaching Juno during the mariachi moment.) For enrichment outside of training sessions, the whales are additionally exposed to all sorts of different things, from bubbles to TV shows (I hope they’re watching Discovery!) just to keep the whales engaged and entertained. They have active minds that need stimulation.
In the wild, beluga whales are “curious from afar” and “skittish,” O’Neil said. It’s no wonder. Our hunting of them and harming of their habitat has reduced their populations in the wild. The IUCN Red List classifies them as “near threatened.”
Juno and his tank buddies, however, are doing their part to help turn the tide. Through public education programs at such aquariums and other conservation efforts, people like us are made more aware of these magnificent, intelligent animals.