How to Name a Whale

ByABC News via via logo

Oct. 24, 2006 — -- For the last 15 years, Shedd Aquarium in Chicago has chosen the names for its beluga whales in its Oceanarium from Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit, or the native people of Arctic and Subarctic Canada.

Because its adult belugas came from the western Hudson Bay, the aquarium decided to pick their names from the Inuit language. A large beluga population migrates to the bay around Churchill, Manitoba -- the polar bear capital of the world -- in the summer.

For the most recent addition to Shedd's beluga whale family, the Marine Mammals staff has developed a list of Inuktitut words that might best describe the rapidly growing, curious female calf.

But remember, you can suggest any name you like.

Although Inuktitut is one language, it comprises many dialects from Newfoundland on the east to the Yukon on the west. The language has different names and dialects in Greenland, Alaska and arctic Russia. It is a member of the Eskimo-Aleut language family and is spoken by about 30,000 Inuit in Canada.

In 1991, in time for the opening of the Oceanarium in April, Shedd held a naming contest for its first two beluga whales. The contest was open to Chicago and Churchill schoolchildren who were asked to submit a name in the Inuit language along with a 75-word essay explaining why the name was appropriate. One winner was selected from both cities.

Then a 6th-grader in Oak Lawn, Ill., Andrea Ward entered the name "Puiji"(poo-EE-jee). The word, which means "those who show their noses," was appropriate "because the mammals surface to breathe, unlike fishes," she wrote. She received a $1,000 scholarship and an Oceanarium field trip for her class.

The second whale was named Immiayuk [ih-mee-AY-yook] by Churchill sixth-grader Reginald Kraeker. In his essay, he included the Inuktitut symbols for the name ["echo"] and won a $1,000 scholarship and an all-expense-paid trip to Chicago for him and his family to take part in the grand opening ceremonies. Immi, as she came to be called, died suddenly in December 1999.

Staffers and the founder of a Churchill-based company named two belugas that Shedd collected in late 1992 Naluark (nah-LOO-ahrk) and Naya (NY-uh), respectively.

Naluark means "whitened skin."

"We went through an Inuit dictionary and came up with about 10 words that would be appropriate names for the belugas," said Ken Ramirez, vice president of animal collections and training. "Then we passed the list around, and the staff voted for 'Naluark,' " which was finalized by then-director William P. Braker.

John Hickes, founder of the Inuit-owned, Churchill -based company that collected the aquarium's whales suggested the name Naya, which means "little sister of a male."

A fifth adult whale at Shedd, Mauyak (MY-ak), received her Inuit name ("soft snow") at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, where she lived before coming to the aquarium.

Contests were held to name the first two belugas born at Shedd. Kayavak (KY-uh-VAHK), which is the word for an Inuit singing game that creates beautiful soft echoes, was the winning name for a female born in 1999, and the male born in 2000 was named Qannik (kah-NIHK), which means "snowflake."

Kayavak's mother was Immiayuk; Qannik's mom is Mauyak. Inuk, a beluga from Point Defiance who is now at Mystic Marinelife Aquarium in Mystic, Conn., sired both.

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