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What is a Beluga Whale?

Jessica Ellis
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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The beluga whale, Delphinapterus leucas, or white whale, is a small, round-headed whale living in mostly Arctic ranges. Closely related to the Narwhal, the beluga whale is often called the Sea Canary for its high-pitched vocalizations. The all-white whale has long charmed fans, and is now displayed in captivity around the world.

The white whale is smaller than most other toothed whales, with adults ranging from between 13-20 feet (4-6 m) and generally weighing around one ton (907 kg.) Babies are usually quite small and gray colored, usually weighing 150-200 lbs (68-90 kg.) Belugas gestate for about 15 months and nurse for approximately two years. The young animals lighten in color as they grow, and become pure white shortly after reaching sexual maturity, between seven and nine years of age.

The white whale is recognized for its distinctive singing. Belugas use echolocation to locate food and potential obstacles underwater, and are reported to be loud enough to hear above the water’s surface. Some observers have noted that the melon-shaped head of the whale changes shape depending on the whistles, clicks, and chirps it produces.

Beluga whale pods are notoriously variable, unlike with most other whale species. A whale may belong to several pods or family groups in their lifetimes. Adult males tend to congregate together in large groups, sometimes of more than one hundred animals. Females and calves stay closer together, although they may join multiple pods at traditional breeding and feeding grounds. Some observers have noticed mature whales returning to their birthplaces to temporarily reunite with their mothers.

There are believed to be around 100,000 belugas in the wild. As a long-lived apex predator, the beluga whale is considered an important barometer of environmental status. Human pollution has been shown to have an adverse affect on beluga population, with recent examinations of carcasses providing evidence of increased cancer rates. In one population, native to the Canadian St. Lawrence River, dead bodies of the whales are considered toxic waste, as they contain extremely high levels of dangerous chemicals. There is now great concern among experts that high pollution levels are leading to a lowered reproductive rate among the beluga whale and may cause long-term population damage.

Beluga whales were among the first whale species to be kept in captivity, beginning in 1861. Since then, they have been a popular staple of aquariums and sea-life parks. Detractors claim this practice is harmful to animals, as they are used to an enormous range and are placed under considerable stress in a tank environment. Proponents of captivity argue that allowing the public interaction with the animals promotes conservation efforts and permits closer scientific study than observation of wild animals.

For centuries, the beluga whale has been hunted by Inuit tribes throughout Canada and Alaska. While some whale communities have not been overly damaged by the hunting, other groups have been dangerously overhunted, leading to severely reduced numbers. Unsustainable hunting levels and rising pollution in home ranges has lead to several beluga whale communities being listed as endangered or at risk of endangerment by Canadian and American government agencies.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a beluga whale?

A beluga whale is a small, white cetacean native to Arctic and sub-Arctic waters. Known scientifically as Delphinapterus leucas, they are easily recognizable by their distinctive color and lack of a dorsal fin. Belugas are highly sociable mammals that communicate using a complex array of sounds, earning them the nickname "canaries of the sea."

How big do beluga whales get?

Beluga whales typically reach lengths of 13 to 20 feet (4 to 6 meters) and weigh between 1,100 to 3,300 pounds (500 to 1,500 kilograms). Males are generally larger than females and can weigh up to 1,600 kilograms. Their size is one of the adaptations that help them survive in the cold Arctic environment.

What do beluga whales eat?

Beluga whales have a diverse diet that includes fish, crustaceans, and worms. They are opportunistic feeders, with their prey varying depending on their habitat and the season. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, belugas often consume salmon, capelin, herring, shrimp, and Arctic cod, among other species.

Are beluga whales endangered?

Beluga whale populations are classified into distinct subpopulations, some of which are considered stable while others are at risk. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the beluga as "Near Threatened." Specific populations, like those in Alaska's Cook Inlet, are protected under the Endangered Species Act due to their critically low numbers.

How do beluga whales communicate?

Beluga whales are known for their vocal behavior and have a broad repertoire of clicks, whistles, and clangs. These sounds are used for echolocation, social communication, and navigation. Researchers have found that belugas can even mimic the pattern and frequency of human speech, showcasing their complex communication abilities.

Where can you find beluga whales in the wild?

Beluga whales are primarily found in the Arctic Ocean and adjoining seas, including the Hudson Bay, Sea of Okhotsk, and Bering Sea. During the summer, they migrate to warmer river estuaries and coastal areas for breeding and calving. In winter, they return to the ice-covered waters of the Arctic, using their strong melon heads to break through ice for breathing.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for AllThingsNature. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.

Discussion Comments

By anon37584 — On Jul 20, 2009

Are there any of those in the Philippines?

By overreactor — On Jul 01, 2009

They are so beautiful. Completely white, it seems to fully blend with their environment.

Jessica Ellis

Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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