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The Beluga Whale

by Murray Lundberg

    If any whale can be called "cute", the beluga is the one. Their size, facial movements, vocalizations, playful nature and apparent curiosity about people all make them favourite attractions for Arctic tour operators, and at aquariums.

Beluga Whale, a native of Arctic seas

    With one exception, Delphinapterus leucas is only seen in Arctic and subarctic waters. The exception is the St. Lawrence estuary, whose population is thought to have been isolated from their normal range when the last Ice Age ended.

    In the winter, deep water is chosen due to the fact that the shallow waters are frozen, but shallow water is the summer choice. Depending on the specific area, belugas may feed on salmon, herring, smelt, flounder, shrimp or cod. They also sometimes use jets of water that they spit out to dislodge worms and snails from the sea floor. An adult will eat from 40-80 pounds of food each day.

    Belugas have smooth skin that is reddish- or gray-brown when they are born, gradually changes to gray, then finally turns white in adulthood.

Beluga Whales at Stanley Park Aquarium in Vancouver, BC     Belugas have such an enormous range of sounds that early Arctic explorers called them "sea canaries". Terms such as "clicks, chirps, grunts, squeals, screeches and whistles" are used to describe their vocalizations. As well, there is a pouch full of semi-liquid fat on their forehead, known as a "melon", that seems to direct the sounds that help it navigate through the shoals and ice packs, and to find food. At Chicago's Shedd Aquarium, belugas have learned to mimic birds, scuba divers and even a noisy clothes dryer! To enlarge the photo of the belugas at the Stanley Park Aquarium in Vancouver, BC back in 1978, just click on it.

    Belugas have two primary enemies - polar bears and, of course, man. It is not uncommon for belugas to become trapped in open leads between ice packs, and there they become fairly easy prey for both predators. In some areas, killer whales are also significant predators.

    Estimates of the world population of belugas range from 40-80,000. Although not endangered as a species, some local populations are. Of particular note in 2000 are Alaska's Cook Inlet belugas, and those in the St. Lawrence River estuary.

    In Cook Inlet's Turnagain Arm, pods of them can be seen from the heavily-travelled Seward Highway as they feed on salmon. Ten years ago, there were about 1,000 belugas in Cook Inlet, but overhunting by Alaska Natives (from 20 to 100 whales were killed each year) resulted in a dramatic drop to about 350 today. In 1999, all subsistence hunting was banned until the population recovers to at least 650. On May 8, 2000, several environmental groups filed a suit against the Secretary of Commerce and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for not acting soon enough to protect the Cook Inlet population. They are asking that this population be listed as Endangered, not Depleted as NMFS currently proposes.

    Although about 15,000 belugas were killed by hunters in the St. Lawrence estuary between about 1880 and 1950, pollution is now by far the greatest threat to the population. Industrial toxins concentrate in the fish that the belugas feed on, and the toxics then transfer to the fat and milk of the whales. Heavy ship traffic also interferes with the belugas' ability to find food and other belugas with their "sonar" noises. Estimates of the number remaining range from 300-700.

    The name "beluga" is also used to describe large white sturgeons, Acipenser huso. When you see beluga caviar for sale, it is from these sturgeon, not from the Arctic belugas, which are mammals, and so don't have eggs in the way fish do.

Beluga Links

White Whales in Captivity
This article about the capture and display of beluga whales was first published in the July 1899 issue of "Appleton's Popular Science Monthly."

Beluga Stamp
Canada issued a large postage stamp featuring the beluga in 2000.

Distribution Map
A very clear map showing the circumpolar range of the beluga.

Marineland Theme Park
The site includes a brief look at the belugas who arrived at the Niagara Falls facility in 2000.

Mystic Aquarium
Located at Mystic, Connecticutt - the site includes beluga facts and photos.

Shedd Aquarium
This facility in Chicago, first opened in 1930, has 8,000 fish and sea mammals (including belugas) in hundreds of tanks.

St. Lawrence Estuary Belugas
The St. Lawrence beluga whale population is estimated at close to 1000 individuals, but is considered to be at risk.

Beluga whale photo is ©1978-2015 by Murray Lundberg
Beluga whale graphic is ©2001 by Clipart.com, and is used here with permission.