Aquafacts / Belugas

AquaFacts: Belugas

AquaFacts are a resource for students who are looking for information on the animals at the Aquarium or other related topics. Here, we've compiled some of the most frequently asked questions that we've received about belugas.

Quick info

10-15 cm

Layer of blubber for insulation

1.5 metres

Length of a baby beluga

3-5 metres

Approximate length of adult beluga

1,500 kg 

Approximate weight of adult male beluga

40%

Of a beluga’s body weight is blubber

How can I identify a beluga whale?

The beluga, or white whale, is a medium-size toothed whale named for its white colouration.  The name beluga comes from the Russian word for white.  Along with its distinct colouring, belugas are easily recognized by their robust, stocky body and small rounded head with a short beak and protruding forehead called a ‘melon’.  A beluga’s neck is narrower than most whales, and its seven neck vertebrae are unfused allowing it to nod and turn its head.  Additionally belugas do not have a dorsal (back) fin – instead it has a narrow ridge that runs down the rear half of its back. Adult males are slightly larger than adult females. Males may reach up to 4-5 m and 1,500 kg, while females are smaller at 3-4 m and 1,360 kg.

Despite the striking white colour of adults, beluga whales are not born white.  Beluga calves are a brownish-grey colour when they are born and turn a slate grey colour within a few weeks.  As belugas age, their skin loses pigment cells, gradually becoming lighter in colour until they reach maturity, around 12-14 years-old for males and 8-14 years-old  for females, and become white in colour.  Adult belugas do though continue to retain some dark pigmentation around the edges of the pectoral flippers and tail flukes.

Where do belugas live?

Belugas live in the Arctic and sub-Arctic waters of the world being found in Alaskan, Canadian, Greenlandic, Norwegian, and Russian waters.  Although they are currently recognized as a single species, Delphinapterus leucas, the global beluga population consists of multiple subpopulations or stocks. Genetic markers have confirmed at least 21 subpopulations that are largely demographically isolated by large land masses and heavy ice cover.  

Most groups of belugas move seasonally from the open ocean to coastal areas in response to the seasonal freezing and thawing of sea ice. As the ice breaks up in the spring, belugas move shoreward into newly opened waterways. Belugas often enter rivers and estuaries where the shallow waters are warmer and the salinity is lower than that of the ocean. These environmental conditions trigger a molt of the top layers of a beluga’s skin.

The southern-most beluga population inhabits the St. Lawrence River estuary of Canada. It is a remnant population, separated from the other populations during the last Ice Age.  Although this population resides year-round in the St. Lawrence, seasonal migratory movements are still observed between upstream wintering grounds favouring open ice, and downstream summer grounds favouring coastal water, estuaries, and protected bays.

Do belugas live in groups?

The beluga is a highly social animal, found in groups of 2 to several dozen individuals, in what biologists term “fission-fusion societies” due to the fluidity in group composition.  In the summer months, thousands of belugas gather in shallow areas where rivers and oceans meet, known as estuaries. Related whales use the same estuaries for up to 20 years, indicating life-long associations. Matrilineal units of females, calves, and older female offspring constitute these large summering herds.  Individuals from the various social units periodically separate and rejoin, with fluctuating group composition. Males form smaller separate groups, with long-lasting associations. Male and female belugas come together in estuaries to molt their skin, rubbing on rocks in the shallow areas, and for females to give birth; but for the rest of the year, groups of adult males remain apart from the females and their calves. Scientists are only able to observe belugas in the ocean during the summer, and little is known about what happens to the social groupings in the winter and where the animals spend most of their time.

How do belugas stay warm in icy Arctic waters?

The body of a beluga whale is well adapted for life in the icy Arctic and sub-Arctic.   Beluga’s have a thick layer of insulating blubber about 10-15 cm thick to protect it from the extreme cold.  The thickness of the blubber layer varies with the season and the water temperature.  To reduce heat loss beluga’s have a relatively small head, pectoral and tail flippers, and have no dorsal fin.  A dorsal ridge also allows belugas to swim more freely under and break through ice. 

How do belugas communicate?

Belugas, nicknamed ‘sea canaries’ by early whalers, are amongst the most vocal cetacean species using sound to communicate, maintain contact, navigate, and find food. They communicate with a wide range of sounds: clicks, chirps, grunts, squeals, screeches, and whistles. Sound is an effective means of communication for belugas because it travels long distances through water – four times faster in the water than in air and greater distances.

The Ocean Wise Marine Mammal Research Program has conducted both ex-situ and field studies of beluga whales for nearly two decades, with a strong focus on studies of acoustic communication in relation to underwater noise.  Dr. Valeria Vergara’s early research identified what is likely the most critical call type in the extensive vocal repertoire of beluga whales – termed the ‘contact call’ is used primarily for maintaining group cohesion and to regain or maintain contact between mothers and their dependent calves.  Her research also showed that calves initially make underdeveloped versions of this call type and learn the calls made by their mother similar to how humans learn language.

What do belugas eat?

Belugas have a diverse diet eating a variety of capelin, young salmon, arctic cod, herring, smelt, flounder, shrimp, snails, crabs, and worms. They will forage for food on the underside of sea ice, on the ocean floor, and throughout the water column.  Belugas can dive deep for food, and have been recorded reaching depths of 1000 m!

Belugas use echolocation to find their food. Echolocation or sound clicks are emitted from their nasal passages similar to how they make communication sounds. These clicks travel through water and bounce off objects including ice, food, or the ocean floor. Belugas listen for the echoes of these clicks to determine where their food is located. Belugas are incredibly accurate with their echolocation.

How many beluga whales are there?

Although they are currently recognized as a single species, Delphinapterus leucas, the global beluga population consists of multiple subpopulations or stocks with varying degrees of abundance and genetic differentiation. Scientists are generally only able to observe belugas in the summer months when they return to their summer estuaries.  Strong maternal site fidelity for these summering estuaries and genetic markers have confirmed at least 21 subpopulations in Arctic and Subarctic waters.  Current estimates of the various subpopulations based on summering groups estimate the global beluga population to be more than 150,000 whales.  However, given that there are no estimates for how many belugas exist in the Russian High Arctic, a total abundance is likely more than 200,000 belugas.

Eight subpopulations or Designatable Units have been identified in Canada. The geographically isolated St. Lawrence Estuary beluga population is estimated to be just over 850 individuals and was listed as ‘endangered’ in 2016 by the Species at Risk Act.  The population has been declining steadily since the early 2000s, a trend that may be accentuated by a recent unprecedented increase in calf mortality.

Do belugas have predators?

Yes. Killer whales, polar bears, and humans predate on beluga. Ice can provide shelter from these predators – killer whales, with their tall dorsal fins, usually don’t follow belugas beneath the ice pack – but ice can be dangerous too.  Belugas can get trapped at a breathing hole with no access to open water for months at a time.  Humans hunt belugas for food – subsistence hunting (hunting to survive) in the Arctic is an important part of Inuit life.

How long do belugas live?

Belugas have long lives, and can live for 75 years or more.

How do belugas reproduce?

Beluga whales are mammals and give birth to live young.  Females give birth to their first calf after they’ve reached sexual maturity around 8-14 years-old. The length of pregnancy (gestation period) is 14-15 months. Mating takes place between April and June, and calving runs from June to September.  Females give birth to a single calf about every three years. Newborn calves are 1.4 m long and weight 50-60 kg. Immediately upon birth the calf is able to swim, surface to breath, emit sounds, and drink its mother’s milk.  Calves nurse from their mothers until the age of 2, forming a very close bond needed for survival and learning. There is a high degree of cooperation to raise the young, with other females babysitting calves that are not their own.

What threats do belugas face?

As a global population belugas are not considered to be at risk; however, in Canada of the eight beluga populations, three are listed as “endangered” (Eastern Hudson Bay, St. Lawrence Estuary, and  Ungava Bay populations), one is “threatened” (Cumberland Sound population), two are  “of special concern” (Eastern High Arctic-Baffin Bay and western Hudson Bay populations), and one is not assessed (James Bay population). Only the eastern Beaufort Sea population is not at risk. The main human threats faced by belugas are climate change, habitat loss, noise pollution, and contaminants and pollution in the water.  The rough estimate of the beluga population in Canada is between 72 000 and 144 000 animals.  More research needs to be done to understand this species

How can I help belugas?

  • Give them space – Make sure to always follow the Be Whale Wise Guidelines when watching whales, or observe whales from land – a zero-impact alternative to whale watching.
  • Eat sustainable seafood – Know if your seafood is from a healthy, stable stock caught by environmentally friendly methods. Choose Ocean Wise Sustainable Seafood.
  • Dispose of waste responsibly – What goes down your drain eventually ends up in the ocean. Dispose of your hazardous waste at designated drop-off sites. Always reduce, reuse, and recycle.
  • Clean our shorelines – Garbage in the ocean poses a risk to all marine life, including killer whales and their prey. Help reduce marine debris by participating in the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup.

References

  1. Alekseeva, Y. I., E. M. Panova and V. M. Bel’kovich. 2013. Behavioral and acoustical characteristics of the reproductive gathering of beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) in the vicinity of Myagostrov, Golyi Sosnovets, and Roganka Islands (Onega Bay, the White Sea). Biology Bulletin 40: 307–317.
  2. American Cetacean Society. Beluga Whale Fact Sheet
  3. Beland, Pierre. 1996. Beluga: A Farewell to Whales. New York: Lyons Press.
  4. Bel’kovitch, V. M., and M. N. Sh’ekotov. 1993. The belukha whale: Natural behavior and bioacoustics. USSR Academy of Sciences, Shirshov Institute of Oceanology, translated by M. A. Svanidze. J. C. Haney and C. Recchia, eds. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA.
  5. Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Beluga whale St. Lawrence Estuary population
  6. Michaud, R. 2005. Sociality and ecology of the odontocetes. Pages 303–326 in K. E. Ruckstuhl and P. Neuhaus, eds. Sexual segregation in vertebrates: Ecology of the two sexes. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K.
  7. Norris, Kenneth S. 1994. “Beluga: White Whale of the North.” National Geographic. 185(6): pp. 2 - 31.
  8. O’Corry-Crowe, G., R. Suydam, L. Quakenbush, et al. 2018. Migratory culture, population structure and stock identity in North Pacific beluga whales (Del- phinapterus leucas). PLoS ONE 13(3):1–32.
  9. Paine, Stephanie. The Nature of Arctic Whales: Belugas, Bowheads and Narwhals. 1995. Greystone Books.
  10. Postma, L. D. 2017. Genetic diversity, population structure and phylogeography among belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) in Canadian waters: broad to fine scale approaches to inform conservation and management strategies.  PhD Thesis. University of Manitoba, Winnipeg.
  11. Research and Education Group on Marine Mammals (GREMM.) Whales Online. Beluga

Permission is granted by the Ocean Wise Conservation Association for classroom teachers to make copies for non-commercial use. This permission does not extend to copying for promotional purposes, creating new collective works, or resale.

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