Beluga Fact File
The beluga is often called the ‘white whale’ being the only whale species to have white skin which is present across its entire body. Their coloration gives them good camouflage with the ice floes and icebergs in the Arctic.
Often adult belugas will appear to have a yellowish tinge. This is caused by a layer of algae which is growing on the skin. Belugas undergo a summer molt during which they lose this tinge.
They are covered by a thick layer of blubber to retain heat in their cold environment.
Sitting on either side of the body are small, rounded flippers. A fibrous ridge runs down the back with no dorsal flipper.
They have a bulbous forehead which is known as a “melon.” It is flexible and is able to change shape allowing them to make facial expressions.
An adult beluga will measure between 4 and 5.5m (13 and 18ft) long. They weigh between 1 and 1.5 tonnes (1-1.5tons). Males tend to be larger than females.
The beluga is a carnivore. They will feed on fish and invertebrate prey. As many as 100 animals have been recorded as part of their habitat.
Each day between 2.5 and 3% of their body weight is consumed.
Beluga whales hunt together herding schools of fishes in to shallow water where they are easy to eat.
Food is not chewed and must be swallowed whole.
1-1.5 tonnes (1-1.5tons)
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Beluga whales are confined to the ocean’s around the Arctic region. They appear to be widespread throughout these areas.
These animals are at home in estuaries, on the continental self and in deep ocean basins. They may be found in open water or among ice. Occasionally they have been seen to swim up rivers.
Breeding is observed from March through to May. Males may mate with multiple females each season. Breeding occurs in a bay or estuary.
Females are pregnant for 14 to 15 months. Most births involve a single calf though twins have been recorded. At birth the calves average 1.5m (5ft) long.
At birth the calf is colored grey. This begins to pale by 2 years old and then transitions to white by 5 years old. Young individuals have thicker skin which compensates for a lack of blubber. As they grow they shed this skin.
Calves will nurse milk from their mother for up to two years. At a year old they will first start to try some invertebrates or small fish.
Sexual maturity is reached between 4 and 7 years old for females and eight to nine years for males.
A female will produce a calf once every two to three years. They will produce their last calf in their early twenties.
In some populations of the beluga they will undertake a migration from the summering sites to the wintering sites.
Belugas are able to dive for up to 20mins. They may reach depths of up to 900m (2950ft) during these dives.
These whales are incredibly vocal. They produce a range of calls including squeaks, whistles, mewls, clicks and hums. Their large head is able to focus these sounds.
The neck vertebrae of a beluga is not fused like it is in other whales. This allows them to move the head up, down and side to side.
Each summer belugas molt their skin. This is achieved by rubbing their skin across pebbles in shallow water.
Belugas are highly social and form large pods. Males tend to travel together while females will travel with other females and their calves. Individuals may move between groups regularly. A pod may include 2 to 25 individuals.
Multiple pods may join together for a period and move around together.
These whales have been observed to strand but can survive till the next high tide when they will return to the water.
Over short distances belugas can reach a top speed up to 27.5km/h (17mph).
Predators and Threats
Natural predators of the beluga include orcas and polar bears. Polar bears are able to grab them when they surface at a gap in the pack ice.
They are affected by oil and gas exploration which has increased the amount of ships in their habitat. This can disrupt their communication and also increases the risk of pollution.
A decrease in sea oil has removed places where they can hide from predators.
Currently the largest threat faced by the species is hunting for human consumption. Continuing harvests from small populations may lead to wiping these populations out.
Belugas have been nicknamed as the “canaries of the sea” due to the wide range of vocalizations they produce.
Hafiz Issadeen, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Middle One and Two, Bottom
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