When I walked down the stairs wearing those Shedd waders and into that coooold water where the belugas were swimming lap after lap after lap while watching us, I felt like I was 10 again.
My heart was racing. My breath caught in my throat. There were these incredible, mammoth creatures swimming just in front of me.
Win a beluga encounter
What should Shedd Aquarium's new baby beluga be named? Cast your vote here for a traditional Inuit name and enter to win an experience with a beluga and a Shedd family VIP pack. You must be at least 10 years old and 5 feet tall to win. Winners ages 10-15 must be accompanied by an adult. Full sweepstakes rules.
Today, kids have Discovery Channel's "Animal Planet" and "Life." Years ago, I was glued to all the Jacques Cousteau TV specials and my imagination would run away with me. I'd be diving with Cousteau and swimming alongside these amazing beings who lived, literally, in an other worldly realm, underwater.
Now, here I was, an adult, living out that dream at Shedd Aquarium, walking out onto a ledge, water up to my waist, about to enjoy a play date with Naya, while a few lucky others got to know another female beluga, Puiji, who had recently given birth to a boy calf.
I never learned to dive, but I swam in the Pacific Ocean with sea turtles before. And I've watched, awe-struck, as humpback whales surfaced and dolphins skimmed the water's edge alongside a catamaran I was on while vacationing.
But this, this was like nothing else I had ever experienced. Here we were in the water and right next to us were these beautiful white and gray beings. And they were watching us, intently, every time they passed. Just like when I was 10, I imagined what they were thinking: "Gonna make a new pal? Gonna dive in and swim? Got fish?"
Naya is 21 years old, 11 and a half feet long and weighs 1,600 pounds.
I think I could pick her out if I returned to Shedd at any time because of the starburst marking she has around one eye and the extra ridges of blubber on her underside. And, of course, because the 10-year-old in me believes we bonded that day.
The trainers used a whistle pitched too high for our ears to hear to alert the whales. They put colored, rubber shapes in the water and, within seconds, Naya appeared before "her shape" and Puiji went to hers farther down the ledge.
Belugas' jaw structures are such that they always look like they're smiling. How could you not love a creature like that? When Naya followed her trainer's command to offer her head so I could pat the silky-smooth, dense rubbery oil-filled melon atop it, well, she could've knocked me over with a gentle nudge, I was so thrilled.
Before our date was over, I tickled Naya's tongue (a big version of ours but they can't stick theirs out like we can). I learned she swallows her herring, squid and capelins whole and uses her peg-like teeth only to crack open shellfish. Belugas don't have baby and adult teeth like we do and Naya had a few cracked ones.
Naya, whose Inuit name means "little sister to a male," also is known as "Auntie Naya" at Shedd. Why? Because she is the first to be introduced to the new babies and, somehow, unlike humans, she is able to lactate and help nurse others' babies, no matter if she's recently given birth. So she's helped feed Puiji's new boy, who also swam by to check out the visitors a few times.
When trainer M.E. Hampton had me hold out my hands and repeatedly flick my fingers to get Naya to "vocalize," I nearly squealed with delight. The musical series of whistles, trills and chirps she made by pushing air out of her blowhole was unbelievably beautiful and surprisingly long. It was unlike anything I'd heard or seen on a Cousteau special.
Naya and her beluga mates are known for their uncanny ability to mimic. In fact, one of the Shedd trainers told us the belugas learned on their own to imitate bird songs that are piped into their habitat. They even replicated the sound of a broken clothes dryer they could hear for a while in the quiet of the night.
Astonishing, these belugas are. So playful, so watchful, so intelligent.
The kid in me pictured what it would be like to be a beluga, swimming in the deep Arctic waters with Naya and Puiji, playing with the baby, diving for food and vocalizing in the language that belongs only to belugas. What a gift.
Can you imagine it? Getting a kiss from a big, smiling beluga and meeting the beluga baby boy you helped name? Simply incredible.
The Daily Herald, ABC 7 Chicago and Shedd Aquarium are joining together to sponsor a contest to name Shedd's newest baby boy beluga. Vote for an Inuit name for the baby at www.dailyherald.com and you'll be entered to win Shedd passes and a beluga encounter for two.