Shedd Aquarium’s beluga celebrates first birthday with visitors

This was not your average first birthday party.

For one thing, the guest of honor was a 460-pound beluga whale, the Shedd Aquarium’s own Nunavik, being serenaded by the familiar strains of “Happy Birthday.”

“Every kid’s first birthday is a big deal,” says Lisa Takaki, Director of Marine Mammals at the Shedd. “It’s no different here at the aquarium. Every 1-year birthday is a big milestone.”

Nunavik was born Dec. 14, 2009, the fifth beluga born at the aquarium. Visitors to the aquarium can still see a video of the event, during which the 5′ 4″, 162 pound whale was born breech.

His unusual name – meaning friendly, beautiful and wild in Inuit – was chosen by Chicagoans over the summer, cementing his status as a city celebrity.

The crowd, gathered for the Shedd’s new Holiday Fantasea show, sang to the birthday boy as he and his mother, Puiji, “blew out” the single candle on his brightly decorated cake by spitting water on the flame.

Takaki, who held the cake, says she hopes the kids in attendance will form a connection to Nunavik that makes them want to come back and visit him in the future.

“Kids love birthday parties, right?” she says. “We hope they enjoyed the show [and that] it will inspire them to learn about the animals and to care about the environment into their adult years.”

Every animal’s first birthday is a big deal at the Shedd, Takaki says. But the timing of Nunavik’s birth date nicely coincides with the holiday show, raising the celebration’s profile a bit.

Nunavik has a role in the A Holiday Fantasea, performing tricks alongside his mother while accompanied by a festive holiday soundtrack.

But in some ways, this unconventional celebration wasn’t all that different from any other baby’s big day.

The holiday show includes a baby-book-style photo album projected on the screen, highlighting Nunavik’s major milestones over the last 12 months, as well as video clips of his trainers boasting about his accomplishment, like any proud parents.

And like any birthday boy, it all comes down to the cake. In addition to piles of sweet frosting, Nunavik’s cake was topped by a single silvery fish – a special treat.

“Nunavik will get fish,” Takaki says. “The cake is for us.”

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