This Thanksgiving, I’m especially grateful for the prospect of a vaccine so that, once again, we can be together with family and friends. I’m grateful to those individuals, gifted people from various backgrounds, who have come together, communicated and cooperated, to make the vaccine a reality. It reminds me of connection I made with an extraordinary creature, one from a world vastly different from mine, yet our connection created a memorable laugh-out-loud mo-ment.
It was around Thanksgiving several years ago when I stood alone at the open-air beluga whale tank at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, watching these social creatures of the sea circle past me. I had a notebook and pen in hand, because, well, I’m a writer and visiting exciting places stirs my creative juices.
I’d learned how this small whale, often nicknamed “sea canary” communicates through clicks, screeches, and snorts. I knew they were born gray and lighten in color as they age. Also, males are larger than females, and the knob on their head, called a melon, is used to direct and change the frequency of their sound waves. I’d also learned that their flexible necks allow them to nod and turn their heads in various directions so, when one of the belugas repeatedly swam past, then turned its neck to watch me, I paid attention.
The beluga that had caught my eye was white-gray and smaller than the others, so I as-sumed it was a young female. “Belle,” as I nicknamed her, was definitely aware of me. I kept my eye on her, too, questions filtering through my head.
What would it be like to swim under the Arctic ice? As someone who’s dreading the coming cold and who gets claustrophobic (maybe some of you can relate) I couldn’t help shud-dering. Our worlds and tolerances were vastly different.
What would it be like to rely on sonar to “see” in the dark? I recall scary times while driving through heavy fog. Is that what it felt like for Belle? I knew belugas had a sophisticated sonar system, similar to that used by a submarine. If I had such a talent, would I be able to “see” my black dog when I take her outside at night?
Belle swam past me for a fourth time, and something tugged at my heart. What were the circumstances that brought her here? What was it like for her to be in a tank, instead of with her pod in the ocean? For such an intelligent creature, how did she keep from going insane in this small space? (The pandemic might be causing you to ask similar questions.)
I’d read that belugas experience a range of emotions from grief to loneliness to delight. What I would soon fully appreciate in person was their delightful sense of humor.
On Belle’s fifth round, my beluga swam past me, raised her tail, and cracked it down. Hard. Her tail sent a flood of water my way, totally dousing me. My hair dripped, my nose dripped, my soggy notebook dripped. I whipped my head to the right to look at her. She rolled slightly on her side, her one visible eye focused on my face, and she smiled. Yes, her mouth curled up at the ends. That cheeky girl!
Still drippy, I threw back my head and laughed.
Some people might doubt that my beluga planned this trick on me, but I know what I ex-perienced, and she and I shared a moment. Two beings of different worlds, who have experi-enced vastly different lives, connected. It was beautiful.
This Thanksgiving I’m thankful to my fellow humans who are communicating, cooperat-ing, and making connections, figuring out how to meet the future, so together, cheek-to-cheek, we can share more extraordinary, laugh-out-loud moments