New beluga encounter at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium

The beluga whale habitat is one of my favorite attractions at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium. Not only are the oddly-shaped whales incredibly graceful underwater, but with their wide-set eyes, bulging foreheads, and mouths that always seem to be smiling, they’re also just really cute.

Now beluga-loving visitors to the Shedd don’t have to content themselves with just seeing the animals from above or through the glass in the underwater viewing rooms. Those willing to pony up $200 (per person) can strap on a pair of waders and get in the water with the whales, watch as they work with their trainers, and even interact with them.

The experience is called the “Beluga Encounter“, and aside from a few Benjamins, the only requirements are that participants be at least 10 years old and 5 feet tall. Children 10-15 years old must be accompanied in the water by an adult. The sessions take place in the Grainger Beluga Encounter Habitat, a 90,000 gallon, 16-foot deep tank in the Oceanarium, which was built as part of last year’s $50 million renovation.

The Beluga Encounter takes about 2 hours total, 30 minutes of which are actually spent standing in 3-foot deep water at the corner of the tank. During that time, three to six guests get to touch, pet, and kiss the whales and can reach into their mouths and scratch their tongues, which the whales are said to enjoy.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the whales react well to their visitors, affectionately nuzzling them or playfully bumping heads. To keep the whales from being stressed or overwhelmed, the program is only offered once on Tuesdays and twice on Fridays and Saturdays, and the belugas involved rotate among the oldest seven at the Aquarium.