Chicago aquarium’s beluga whale ‘ambassador’ who touched millions dies at 41

“She was a very independent whale, extremely playful and was an attentive mom to her calves,” Peggy Sloan, chief animal operations officer for Shedd, said in a statement. “The matriarch of our beluga pod, her passing is heartbreaking to everyone who loves beluga whales.

And yet, we are so grateful for what we have learned by caring for her for over three decades – from helping field researchers better understand her species to inform wild populations and their management to their unique world of communication that includes squeals, trills, chirps and amazing mimicking abilities.”

An employee at the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago monitors the progress of Mauyak, an 18-year-old beluga whale and her newborn calf Tuesday, July 18, 2000.

The aquarium said Mauyak was frequently seen spyhopping – when aquatic animals position themselves vertically at the water surface – and squirting water. She was easily recognizable among the other eight beluga whales at the zoo because of her dark gray streaks on her otherwise white sides, the aquarium said.

Beluga whales are known for their vocalizations, and Mauyak’s voice was “especially fine, deep foghorn,” the aquarium said.

“She quickly became, and remained throughout her long life, an incredible ambassador for beluga whales, touching the lives of millions of people who were able to look her in the eye, marvel at her beauty, and experience her one-of-a-kind characteristics,” said Shedd senior animal caretaker Megan Vens-Policky.

Found throughout the Arctic and sub-Arctic waters, beluga whales are near endangered species, the aquarium said. The species are vulnerable to many threat like pollution, habitat degradation, oil and gas exploration, disease, predation from killer whales and human disturbance, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

National Geographic says the typical lifespan of a beluga whale is 35 to 50 years, but those in human care live around 30 to 35 years, the aquarium said. Pathologists from the University of Illinois Zoological Pathology Program performed a necropsy on Mauyak “to collect diagnostic samples to continue to gain insight into belugas.”

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