Exactly six months after its difficult breech birth, the Shedd Aquarium's youngest and most inquisitive beluga whale has a name.
An adoring public can start referring to the 400-pound calf as Nunavik, the Inuit name for friendly, beautiful and wild.
"It seems like an especially fitting name for the little guy," senior trainer Jessica Whiton said. "He's independent and really enjoys interacting with us."
Nunavik was far and away the most popular of 10 possible names fans could choose as part of a sweepstakes Shedd Aquarium held in partnership with the Daily Herald and ABC 7. Nearly all of Shedd's eight beluga whales derive their names from the Inuit language of the native people who live in the Arctic region, which is the animals' natural range.
The announcement came early Monday near the 3-million gallon Oceanarium's Pacific Northwest coastal setting with several suburban officials in attendance including the mayors of Des Plaines, Hanover Park, Naperville and Prospect Heights.
"It's just a fun thing that gives us the chance to get out of the political arena and into nature," Naperville Mayor George Pradel said, watching Nunavik gracefully glide alongside 23-year-old mom Puiji.
More than 3,200 votes were cast and the winner, James Slack of Valparaiso, Ind., will enjoy a Shedd family VIP pack and an up-close encounter with a beluga featuring an opportunity to try a few training techniques.
Shedd staff reflected on the last six months with Nunavik, who beat the odds by surviving at all.
Most belugas are born tail-first but Nunavik's head was the first thing to emerge from the 1,500-pound Puiji, a potentially deadly complication. In that case, the cartilage in the soft, fleshy tail has no chance to stiffen in the cold water and can't propel the calf toward the surface. It was crucial for Nunavik to breathe within minutes of birth, so four divers in the frigid 55-degree water helped guide the slippery 154-pound newborn upward.
Only 50 percent of beluga newborns in the wild survive and 10 percent born to first-time mothers live. Shedd's record is a little higher than half, and the aquarium now boasts five successful beluga births.
Nunavik began nursing a day after his birth and continues to do so with Puiji and Naya, another female beluga who's still lactating after losing her calf on Dec. 22. He won't be completely weened until between 12 and 18 months, but trainers have already started introducing fish into Nunavik's diet.
"He seems to like the fish but he plays with it a lot and spits it out of his mouth, which is what a lot of little kids do, I guess," Whiton said.
Ken Ramirez, senior vice president of animal collections and training, said even a beluga expert would never know Nunavik experienced a challenging birth. He's a talented swimmer for his age since former deficiencies in his tail forced him to adopt and do unique maneuvers. And Shedd staff are confident his curious and playful nature will be sure to amuse onlookers for years to come.
He has said the sweepstakes that ultimately named Nunavik can help raise awareness about the need for aquariums and zoos and the plight animals face as devastation to wild places like oceans and forests continues. He wants to ensure people care for animals like beluga whales so that they never end up on the endangered species list.