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The beluga whale can be found throughout the Arctic Ocean and in the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Did you know?

The beluga whale is a highly vocal animal and has been called the canary of the sea.

Scientific name: Delphinapterus leucas
Average weight: 400 kg–1,000 kg (male)
250 kg–700 kg (female)
Average length: 3 m–5 m
Average lifespan: 30–40 years (maximum 70–80 years)
Beluga whales moving about in the water.

About

Biology

A toothed whale, the beluga belongs to the cetacean order, a group that includes dolphins, porpoises and whales. It is also closely related to the narwhal, the tusked “unicorn” of the sea. Unlike most whales, the beluga lacks a dorsal fin, making it easier to swim under Arctic ice sheets. In fact, the Latin name Delphinapterus translates to “dolphin-without-a-wing.”

The beluga whale is easily recognized among cetaceans for its pure white colour as an adult, rounded forehead and short, broad beak. It has seven neck vertebrae that are not fused, allowing it to move its head up and down and from side to side. Its face is also capable of a wide range of expressions.

A thick insulating layer of fat, or blubber, beneath its skin protects the beluga from the icy Arctic waters. The blubber accounts for as much as 40 percent of the whale’s total body mass.

Habitat and behaviour

The beluga whale is generally found in shallow water, where it feeds and is safe from being preyed on by the orca whale. In winter, the beluga can become trapped in pack ice, so it moves to deeper open water. In summer, it heads to shallow estuaries to feed and mate.

A highly social animal, the beluga whale migrates, moults and hunts in herds numbering hundreds to several thousand. Within the herd, there is segregation into pods by sex and age.

The beluga moults in summer. During this period, many belugas congregate in shallow waters with coarse gravel bottoms. Rubbing against the gravel removes the top layer of yellowing skin, to reveal the new white skin underneath.

The beluga has a highly varied vocal repertoire, ranging from high-pitched whistles to clicks, chirps, moos, low grunts and even growls. It also uses echolocation to navigate and hunt in dark waters, producing sounds at a frequency humans are unable to hear.

The beluga commonly dives to depths of 20 metres when hunting, staying under for 3 to 15 minutes, but it can dive to 1,000 metres and has been known to remain underwater for up to 25 minutes. It preys mainly on schooling fish, such as cod and halibut, crustaceans and worms. Small groups of belugas sometimes herd schools of fish into shallow waters and then prey on them. And the beluga can feed on the seafloor, producing a jet of water to dislodge prey, then suctioning it up.

Range

The St. Lawrence beluga whale population, found along the St. Lawrence River in eastern Canada, represents the southernmost limit of the species’ range and is geographically isolated from other beluga populations. The beluga is also found along the shores of northern Alaska, throughout the Arctic Ocean in northern Canada and along the shores of Hudson Bay.

Various populations outside of Canada live around northern Russia, Greenland and Svalbard, an archipelago midway between Norway and the North Pole.