The White Whale
Relative to other whale species, they have long, distinct necks, which contribute to their flexibility and very diverse swimming movements. Their bulbous forehead, called a "melon", is 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 calls are used to communicate with other belugas and to help them navigate and find food using echolocation.
Belugas live primarily in areas with Arctic sea ice, with about two-thirds of the world population (approximately 150,000 whales) summering in Canadian waters. A few small populations are found further south, as relics from the last ice age, including the famous St. Lawrence Estuary belugas.
One of the most resilient whale species in the Arctic, they have been impacted by chemical and noise pollution, over-exploitation, and likely by rapid climate change. Belugas, like the other ice whales (narwhal and bowhead), depend on sea ice for protection from predatory killer whales, which are an increasing threat as sea ice retreats and opens new areas to the killer whale.
Why is the Beluga Important?Beluga whales are close to the top of the marine food chain and are powerful indicators of the overall health of the marine environment. Some years ago the contaminant levels in the bodies of some of the belugas of the St. Lawrence River (at the outflow of the heavily industrialized and populated Great Lakes ecosystem) were so high that the carcasses were classified as ‘hazardous toxic waste.’
Beluga whales are also culturally important to many Inuit communities in the Arctic; the skin and outer blubber layers, called maktaaq, are used as a source of nutrition and for cultural traditions.
Inuit organizations, scientists, governments, and environmental organizations like WWF are working together to ensure that beluga hunting is carried out in a sustainable way, and that all new industrial activities are planned carefully, so that populations remain healthy in a rapidly changing marine ecosystem.
Learn more about how communities monitor and sustainably harvest belugas in the Canadian Arctic.
Life Under the IceThe beluga is an ice-associated species. It evolved without a dorsal fin, allowing the beluga to move easily among the sea ice, and seek out cracks in the ice to breathe. The sea ice forms an important foundation of the beluga’s food web, and provides these relatively slow-swimming whales with protection from predatory killer whales.
Most belugas are migratory, and move south in the fall as the heavy sea ice forms, to winter in areas with some open water, before returning to well-known summering areas for feeding, nursery and moulting as the ice breaks up in the late spring. A few populations, however – including the St. Lawrence Estuary belugas – do not migrate significant distances.
What Do Belugas Eat?Belugas eat a large variety of fish and crustacean species, including salmon, smelt, herring, Arctic and polar cod, shrimp, crabs, mollusks, and marine worms. They feed in both shallow and deep water areas, in both open water and bottom habitats. They have been recorded diving to more than 350 metres to feed.
What Do Belugas Need?
Belugas are well adapted to their specific habitats, and compared to other Arctic whales seem to be relatively flexible in their niche requirements. They migrate to specific main feeding, moulting and nursery areas every year. Their future depends on continued use of these important natural areas, unaffected by adverse impacts of human activities.
Thousands of years of evolution have prepared Arctic species like the beluga for life on and around the sea ice. Because of climate change, that ice cover has been changing rapidly, in both extent and thickness, and shrinking far too quickly for these species to adapt. A beluga’s life is closely tied to sea ice, both as a place to feed and a place to take refuge. Slow swimming beluga whales rely on sea ice as a place to hide from predators like orcas.
Habitat destruction and degradation:
The melting ice is opening Arctic waters to more human activities - including fishing, oil and gas exploration, mining operations and shipping.
Seismic explorations and intense commercial shipping cause noise pollution that likely has a major impact on belugas’ ability to communicate, detect predators, find food, and care for their young.
Other threats, particularly to the St. Lawrence beluga population, include
contamination by toxic chemicals, and a reduction in the abundance, quality,
and availability of prey.
Read about all Arctic threats.
What WWF is Doing
WWF has also supported Arctic beluga satellite tagging research, as well as community-based projects monitoring beluga health, and is leading research to better understand the impacts of ocean noise. We have also supported the work on St. Lawrence Estuary belugas through our Endangered Species Recovery Fund, and founded as well as co-chaired the recovery team for the St. Lawrence population.
WWF is working to address the effects of climate change, by ensuring a shift to 100% renewable energy economies by 2050 and working to ensure belugas have the resources they need to adapt to a changing planet.
Learn more about WWF’s work in the Arctic.
Did you know?
The word beluga comes from the Russian word “bielo” meaning white; however, these whales are born dark gray. It can take eight years to turn white.
Belugas usually travel in small pods of ten or more, up to many hundreds. They are normally segregated into males, and females with dependent young.
Belugas return annually to specific estuaries and shallow areas to feed, avoid predation, and shed their skin, rubbing off old skin on fine grain sand and gravel particles.