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One Picture

Photographer: Hiroya Minakuchi/Minden Pictures
Subject: Beluga whales: Kelia (male, top two) and Alia (female)
Where: Shimane Aquarium, Japan
Camera: Canon EOS20D
Lens: 10-22 mm zoom
Exposure: ISO800, 1/50, f4.5 (top two); ISO800, 1/40, f4.5 (bottom)

If you think these belugas are enjoying themselves, you’re probably right. “They are very curious and playful,” says Hiroya Minakuchi, who shot the series inside the whales’ tank at Japan’s Shimane Aquarium. They’re so curious, in fact, that while one individual posed for the camera, two others got up close and personal with the photographer, lightly biting and pulling on his regulator hose and flipper, even once nibbling his arm.

Like dolphins, belugas play, tossing and retrieving floats and balls and other objects. But both types of cetaceans can create their own fun—for example, by making bubble rings out of air expelled from their blowholes or mouths. Belugas are one of the few whales that can manipulate their lips, according to Patricia Dove, senior animal care specialist at the Georgia Aquarium, enabling them to form their exhalations into doughnutlike shapes.

Other cetaceans use bubbles as a foraging strategy. Humpback whales, for instance, trap fish in bubbly columnar “nets” released from their blowholes. Wild dolphins also blow bubble rings, usually to signal frustration, excitement, anger, or curiosity, says Fabienne Delfour, who studies animal cognition. With belugas, this behavior seems to have been observed extensively only in captivity. Yet Dove wouldn’t be surprised if they fashioned these ephemeral diversions in the Arctic waters where they live in the wild, too. “They’re very gregarious,” she says.

In 2005 trainers at Shimane observed bubble-ring blowing in three of their five belugas (the others live in a separate tank) and seized the opportunity to reinforce it. The rings eventually became the whales’ favorite toys. Like a lot of performers, these mammals are apparently perfectionists, says Minakuchi, who has documented their progress in thousands of shots. “At the beginning the bubble rings [were] not so beautiful.” Now, he says, if a subpar ring escapes, “they try again to make a good one.”—Julie Leibach

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