Beluga whales are the gentle giants of the sea and at SeaWorld San Diego, I had the animal interaction bucket list opportunity of a lifetime to interact with these beautiful creatures. Between 12 and 14 feet long and weighing about 2000 pounds, belugas are roughly twice the size of bottlenose dolphins. These attentive animals played and interacted with their surroundings and us, seeming almost more timid than I felt. SeaWorld is one of only six facilities in the world to host beluga whales, and through the Beluga Interaction Program, I got a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get in the water with these playful creatures. It’s one thing to see them twirling about behind a giant plexiglas tank, but it was a whole other world to have all 2,000 pounds wading in front of me, begging me to reach out and play.
After checking in at the Beluga Interaction Program desk, we made our way to the Wild Arctic exhibit. There, we were greeted by a member of SeaWorld staff who took us behind the scenes of the Wild Arctic for our first encounter – a walrus. We were given the chance to feed, touch and interact with a large, male walrus before meeting Arctic foxes and a polar bear. This behind-the-scenes introduction was a welcomed addition to the program. I had no idea that I was going to touch and feed the ever-feared walrus, but I cautiously, and literally, jumped at the opportunity, which you can see in the photos.
After our behind-the-scenes introduction, we were escorted to our private locker rooms, shown to our custom-fit wetsuits (the staff asked for our weight, height and shoe size when we booked the tour to ensure a snug fit) and booties and given the time to prepare for our next adventure. As the crowd formed at the beluga whale tank, Darren and I, along with five other guests, made our way through a tunnel into what looked like a frozen ice land. We were taken by our handler to the edge of the water tank holding the belugas and we prepared to get in!
At the instruction of the handler, we stood on a man-made shelf submerged under water that left us waist deep in the chilly arctic habitat simulated water. The water was about 55 degrees, but between my custom-fit wetsuit and the rush from getting in the water with whales, the chilly temp was barely an after-thought.
It was a little unnerving standing next to such large mammals, but they were so docile and playful, I quickly learned to relax and enjoy the unique experience. These beluga whales were like little children. They loved to play, they loved attention, and they loved to be pet and rubbed. The frigid waters washed away my worries and left me with a serene feeling.
The belugas spun in place, floated on their backs to be pet and rubbed on the belly and vice versa, gave kisses on the cheek, waved, and made a variety of noises, depending on the hand signal.
A staff photographer snapped off evidence of our interaction along the way and regardless of the price, we knew we needed to have the life-lasting memories in photo form. After all, how many opportunities would I get to have a picture of a beluga whale kissing my cheek?
Once the encounter was over and we exited the exhibit, we were brought back to the building containing the locker rooms where we freshened up for the rest of our stay at SeaWorld. By the time we arrived back at the Beluga Interaction Program front desk, our CD full of pictures was ready to be purchased. $89 is a steep price to pay for a CD with 85 photos, but it was well worth the expense.
With only eight slots per beluga session, it was an intimate experience that I will not soon forget, especially now that I have the photos to continue the memory of a lifetime. Few places in the world offer such an up-close, unique interaction with these animals.
9 thoughts on “Gentle Giant Interaction at Sea World”
How fantastic!! I’ve always wanted to swim and interact with dolphins – I never even knew there was a ‘Beluga Interaction Program’! These photos are great Lesley, and I completely understand the desire to have them to look back on. 🙂
They have the dolphin program there as well. You can check it out at: http://seaworldparks.com/en/seaworld-sandiego/Attractions/Exclusive-Park-Experiences/Dolphin-Interaction-Program.
How absolutely amazing! I have had swam with the dolphins. This looks like it was much better and more one on one time with the whales. As a biologist, I am envious. You certainly find the best adventures! Thanks for sharing this one. It looked like you had a blast. And the whale too!
It was surprising how timid the whales were. Their gentleness made the interaction that much better.
I’d love to return with my daughter when she is old enough.
What a great job you have? What exactly do you study or do?
It’s so cool to hear about the jobs and lives of others.
I’ve swam and fed almost every animal at Sea World- thanks to all the Sea World Camps I went to as I was growing up! It’s such an amazing experience being around those animals- glad you got to enjoy it 😀
Growing up in the San Diego area must have been amazing. There are so many opportunities there for children.
What was your favorite animal encounter?
I think one of my favorite encounters was with the penguins! They are so hyper and loved giving my hands some love nibbles (thankfully we had gloves on!). But the belugas were on the top of my list as well- they are just like giant marshmallow huggable creatures!
I signed up for this encounter for this summer. I was wondering if I should wear my swimsuit there? Do we change into the wetsuit or just put it on over our swimsuits?
Excited for you! You’re going to love it. You can bring your bathing suit with you and change in the changing rooms. They will give you a wetsuit. There are showers and a dryer for your suit when you finish. Let me know if you have any other questions. It’s a blast.