Whale species > The Beluga Whale

The Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas)

© WWF-Canon / Kevin SCHAFER

© WWF-Canon / Kevin SCHAFER

The word beluga comes from the Russian word "bielo" meaning white. These white whales are, however, born dark grey. It can take up to eight years before they turn completely white.

Unlike other cetaceans, belugas have a flexible neck that allows them to move their head up, down, and to the side. Their bulbous forehead, called a "melon", is also flexible and capable of changing shape. This allows them to make different facial expressions and produce a series of chirps, clicks, whistles and squeals, which give the beluga its other name, "the canary of the sea." These songs are probably used to communicate with other beluga and to help them find food through echolocation.

An adult beluga whale can grow to nearly 5m. Female belugas are usually smaller than males. Belugas, like other arctic whales, do not have dorsal fins (a dorsal fin causes extra heat loss and would be a major hindrance in the arctic ice), but they do have a tough dorsal ridge. They also have a thick layer of blubber that insulates them from the icy arctic waters.

Where are they found?

Found in the Arctic and sub-arctic regions of Russia, Svalbard, Greenland, and North America, belugas are extremely sociable mammals that live, hunt and migrate together in pods, ranging from a few individuals to hundreds of whales.

Most populations of beluga migrate, moving south in autumn as the ice forms in the Arctic, and returning to their northern feeding areas when the ice breaks up in spring. In the summer, they are often found near river mouths, and sometimes even venture up river. One beluga in Alaska was spotted 1000km inland, swimming up the Yukon River. However, a few populations do not follow this migratory pattern, including those in the Cook Inlet, Alaska and the St. Lawrence estuary in Canada.

What do they eat?

Beluga whales eat a variety of prey including salmon, capelin, herring, shrimp, arctic cod, flounder, crabs, and molluscs. They feed in open water (pelagic) and bottom (benthic) habitats, in both shallow and deepwater areas. Belugas have been recorded diving to more than 350 metres to feed.

How long do they live?

Tooth sectioning studies show that beluga whales typically live 30 to 35 years. Belugas can become trapped by freezing ice and starve or suffocate. Polar bears hunt belugas, especially if the whale is trapped in a small "lead" or open water.

Beluga whales and hunting

Subsistence hunting is practised by many circumpolar indigenous peoples. The skin and fat of the beluga is an important traditional food in the cultures of many northern peoples. Further research still needs to be done on beluga populations and care needs to be taken so stocks are not depleted through over-hunting.

Conservation concerns

While beluga whales are not considered an endangered species, the loss of habitat, as humans build on and along coastlines, puts the beluga at risk. Toxics and pollution are also a threat to belugas.