The beluga whale is a relatively small toothed whale that is brown-gray at birth and bright white in adulthood. The beluga is one of just two species in the “white whales” family, the other being the narwhal. As they are closely related and do not have the characteristic tusk of the males, juvenile and female Narwhals can be incorrectly identified as belugas.
Belugas, however, are typically more solidly white than their grayish cousins. Adult belugas are also slightly larger than Narwhals, reaching lengths of around 18 feet (5.5 m). Interestingly, the beluga whale is the only species of cetacean (whales and dolphins) that has a movable neck. Belugas can move their heads up and down and from side to side.
Beluga whales are restricted to the Arctic Ocean and adjacent waters. They feed in shallow, coastal waters during the summer and near the ice edge in winter. Some populations undergo long, seasonal migrations, while others are more resident in nature. They eat a variety of fish and invertebrate prey. Killer whales and polar bears have been known to attack and eat beluga whales. Scientists believe that belugas may swim far into ice-covered waters to avoid Killer Whales but that this may put them in greater risk of predation by Polar Bears.
Occasionally, belugas can be observed far inland, swimming up coastal rivers as far as hundreds of miles. Scientists do not know if these trips into freshwater are for feeding or for other purposes, but belugas are apparently unafraid of very shallow water. In fact, some individuals have been known to survive being stranded/beached by patiently waiting for the return of the high tide. Belugas are also known for their loud, clear vocalizations. They often “sing,” and can even be heard above the ocean surface by people in boats or onshore.
Northern Manitoba’s Hudson Bay coastline is home to the world’s largest population of beluga whales. More than 57,000 beluga whales gather in the region between mid-June to mid-September.
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Conservation scientists consider the beluga to be near threatened with extinction. Climate change is causing rapid changes to the Arctic ecosystem that affect beluga habitat, and chemical pollution in the Arctic is particularly bad, risking the health of large predators like this species. These whales are hunted, legally, by indigenous peoples all around the Arctic, but this ongoing hunt is not generally thought to threaten the species. Climate change and pollution are likely more significant threats to beluga populations, though further research is necessary before accurate predictions can be made.