Social Sea Canaries, the Beluga

Bielo is a Russian word meaning white, which lends to the name of the white arctic whale, the beluga. These toothy white whales that grow to a maximum length of six meters (20 feet) and weigh up to 1,500 kilograms (3,300 pounds) have a rounded forehead that can change shape, allowing belugas to make facial expressions. Unlike other whales with fused neck vertebrae, a beluga’s vertebrae are flexible, giving them a well-defined neck. It means that belugas can turn their head for better vision in catching food and evading predators.

Combine the beluga’s facial expressions with the squeals, chirps and clicks in beluga vocalization that can be heard above water, and these expressive whales earn their nickname of “canaries of the sea.” Because their melon-shaped heads change shape, belugas can make different sounds by blowing air through fatty acids in their large frontal bulb. Belugas are one of the most vocal of all whales.

The chattering beluga whales combine into social groups of two to 25 individuals. A normal beluga pod includes 10 whales that go on communal hunts. Migration pods often combine to form 200 to 10,000 animals. Some belugas stay in the arctic year round. Others migrate south in the autumn and return to river mouths when sea ice breaks up each summer. Often, beluga pods follow bowhead whales, who seek out cracks in sea ice, known as leads. Non-migratory belugas live in Alaska’s Cook Inlet and Canada’s St. Lawrence estuary. Russia, Norway, Greenland, Canada and Alaska are also home to beluga whales.

These whales usually live to be 30 to 35 years old. Newborn beluga calves that are about 1.5 meters (five feet) long, instinctively surface just 10 seconds after being born. Calves start out blue in color, change to greyish-blue during their second year of life and by year six, they are white. Beluga calves are weaned after two years and are mature in seven to nine years.

Belugas molt, or shed their skin, every summer by rubbing on rocks and the bottom of river estuaries. Their skin regrows quickly. Mollusks (clams), crab, flounder, small halibut, cod, shrimp, salmon and herring make up the diet of these whales that have teeth. They feed both on the bottom and in the open ocean. Beluga whales don’t use their 36 to 40 teeth to chew. Instead, they swallow their food whole.

With a lack of a dorsal fin, beluga whales have an easier time swimming under sea ice than other whale types. Beluga whales are thought to have a keen sense of hearing, which helps them find blowholes under sea ice. Approximately 150,000 beluga whales exist throughout the world. Native cultures of Canada, Alaska and Russia have hunted belugas for centuries. Besides subsistence hunting by natives, no other hunting of beluga whales exists. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists beluga whales as near threatened. Beluga whales in Alaska’s Cook Inlet are listed as critically endangered by IUCN, with numbers just above 300 individuals.

Because of their unique beauty, beluga whales are often kept in captivity. Russia is a main exporter of belugas for marine parks. Male belugas can imitate human speech patterns, though humans talk several octaves lower than wild beluga vocalizations, which resemble the shouting of children. The U.S. Navy and the Russian Navy (during the Cold War era) researched the use of beluga whales in assisting divers underwater and to carry cameras in their mouths.