Friendly Beluga Whale Connects with Scientist

June 8, 2015 Dr Toni Frohoff

A friendly beluga whale reaches out to Sonar’s Director of Research Toni Frohoff as she attempts to remain the passive observer. Ultimately, the little whale’s friendly overture won out, and a special experience was had.¬†

Excerpt from Dolphin Mysteries: Unlocking the Secrets of Communication by Kathleen M. Dudzinski, Ph.D., and Toni Frohoff, Ph.D.

I observed a free-ranging friendly beluga whale in Nova Scotia that had been interacting with swimmers and boaters in the area for several years. It was my first time in the water with this whale, and my intention was to make myself as uninteresting as possible to her so that I could study her underwater behaviour as an objective observer.

The whale, however, had a different agenda. It seemed that the less responsive I was to her solicitations for attention, the more persistent she became in engaging me to interact with her. After repeatedly rubbing her body along my hands, which I kept relaxed at my sides despite the temptation to stroke her, she reoriented her body at the surface so that we were both floating, head to head. She pressed her bulbous melon into my forehead ever so gently and just held it there, almost motionless.

Although I did not understand the specific meaning of this behaviour, it seemed clear that she wanted me to interact with her rather than simply observe her… so much that she took matters into her own hands. I saw this behaviour again with a different friendly beluga whale when he gently pressed and held his melon against a diver’s head. I have been unable to find anyone who has observed this behaviour occurring between belugas. Perhaps the rare opportunities for close, in-water interaction with these animals reveal aspects of their communication that we would be unlikely to witness by observing them from afar. In this way, and when conducted responsibly, close observation may provide an invaluable window into the rich communicative expressions of dolphins.

Drawing credit: John Norton