Believing in Belugas This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

February 21, 2013
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In an ideal world, this beluga would not be here, gazing at me with his wise, dark eyes – eyes that are hauntingly similar to mine. In that world, this beluga would be swimming in the blue infinity of the Arctic seas, not this 800,000-gallon tank. In an ideal world, his oceans would be clean and healthy, and everyone would be born with the desire to cherish and protect our environment. In an ideal world, this whale would not be pressing his bulbous, white body against my leg, begging for a stroke without a trainer's command; he would be far away from landlocked Atlanta. That would be his life – in an ideal world.

But in this world, he is here. This is the world where Beethoven, a beluga weighing 1,700 pounds, looks at me with quizzical, sentient eyes that almost bring me to tears with their beauty. This is the world where he opens his mouth, asking for a tongue-pat. After glancing at his trainer (a woman, his friend, who knows him like no other) for permission, I give it to him and watch those eyes close in bliss, and a smile spreads so wide my cheeks ache.

Later I wonder – with my face pressed against the cool acrylic tank – have we done wrong? They may have been born in captivity, but these whales do not belong in tanks. How can we keep them here? Beethoven, Qinu, Grayson, Maris. How can an 800,000-gallon fishbowl ever hope to replicate the freedom of the sea? Surely these creatures with their soulful eyes and individual personalities should not be kept here for our entertainment. Surely there must be a better way to learn about these Arctic giants.

My vision goes white as Maris glides past me. For a moment, her vast ivory bulk is all I can see. I follow her path, watch the gleaming bubbles trail from her blowhole as she floats to the surface. She is angelic, floating with her halo of glimmering bubbles. I cannot help but wonder how she views life. Does she long for the ocean she never knew? For a moment, my heart breaks for these whales, imprisoned angels.

My solemn thoughts are interrupted as a small boy sprints up to the tank, with youthful enthusiasm in his body. Behind trails his harassed mother, cradling a pouty baby. A frown rises unbidden to my face. These people are loud, disrespectful, in this holy room filtered blue by the light of the tank.

Then Beethoven is back, and I could swear his eyes twinkle with mischief. He sinks to gaze at the boy, and the rambunctious child freezes in silent awe before this white being. Hovering like some angel over his followers, Beethoven opens his maw into a comical beluga grin, and my frown slips to a smile as an identical grin bursts on the child's face. Even the baby has fallen silent, and I can see her wide blue eyes focused on the tank. Her small hand reaches out, and the mother steps forward so the searching fingers press upon the plastic.

With a slow pump of his tail, Beethoven glides away. Nonetheless, we are not alone for long. Curious to see what Beethoven had been enjoying, Grayson, a young male, ventures over. With a comical “kissy face,” he blows a silvery ring of bubbles at us, and the boy giggles as the ring bursts against the barrier. Even the mother, who seemed so exasperated, has a faint smile.

We've been joined by more people; it's late in the day and guests are pouring in. Yet, despite the low buzz that inevitably builds with crowds, I can see that many are silently watching the whales.

A girl asks her father a question about the whales. I see his faint panic as he searches for a suitable answer. I answer her question without thinking. And then, I am no longer within myself. The low buzz is now louder. The blue light that seemed to bathe the world is gone, and I am surrounded by colors and noises I had pushed aside. I am awake from a trance of sorts, and I am part of the Humans.

Answering questions is a joy for me. Even the adults, normally isolated from the natural world, have the light of curiosity in their eyes. But even when the questions slow, interest remains bright in their eyes.

As I watch these whales watch these people, I begin to understand their role. They are not miserable prisoners; they are brave ambassadors of the sea. And these whales seem content here, even happy. Why else would they interact with us? They could easily choose to remain in the back of their tank, but they come toward the crowd. When I interacted with them in the water, were their actions those of pained prisoners? When cheeky little Qinu snuggles into me as I stroke her, lingering beneath my hands even after the release whistle blows, I see no misery in her eyes. When Beethoven poses for a hug and lays his full weight of his head in my arms, trusting me, I see no hatred in his eyes.

And as I watch these people watch these whales, I see that they have begun to see these creatures in a new light. The crowd's buzz is loud in my ears, but I can still see the silly smiles that rise when Grayson blows his bubble rings, Beethoven makes his faces, Qinu swims upside down, or Maris twirls gracefully by. Each good feeling born in these moments is yet another step forward to a new age.

People who are born with the innate love of animals and the environment are rare. Most need that love to be nurtured. We will not love what we do not connect with, and we will not connect with what we cannot see. In the eyes of these children, I can see that love growing. I know that they may not grow up to be marine biologists or conservationists – they may not even remember to recycle – but I do know that these whales have made an impact. These landlocked children have been inspired to love these creatures of the ice.

Our world is not an ideal one. The seas are polluted, and nature is suffering. Oceanic ambassadors still swim behind acrylic walls in the hearts of bustling cities, rather than in their native waters. But, I can now see that these whales are not here for mere amusement. They bring the wild to those who have lost it and those who never knew it. These whales are here to fill our hearts with nature's beauty, and our dreams with the rush of the ocean.

It could be said that our world is flawed, but with each heart that yearns to be one with the sea, we get a bit closer to our ideal world.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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FreeAtlanta11+ said...
May 1, 2013 at 6:16 pm
At first when I read your story "Believe in Belugas", I thought to myself, "a teen who understands that belugas don't belong in tanks", but as I read on, I see that you have "drank the kool-aide" that the GA Aquarium sells!  They have clouded your judgement.  They have convinced you that these whales are ambassadors for their families who live in the wild.  Trust me, they are not happy but curious.  Reaching out to anyone and everyone for att... (more »)
Believebeluga This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Jul. 8, 2013 at 3:19 pm
Thank you for your words.   Nonetheless, you have made some assumptions about me that are less than accurate. For one, I do not support the import of those 18 whales. I am very strongly against wild capture of animals. I spoke out against it, just as I speak out against the horrors in Taiji, and the capture of Narnia. I believe that we should be focusing on saving these wild populations, and yes, I do see captivity as a necessary evil.   Whales DO NOT BELONG in a tank. That is ... (more »)
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