Belugas are one of the cutest, friendliest species of whales. Known for their distinctive white coloring and charismatic presence, belugas are carnivorous marine mammals that live in small groups called pods. They are often seen in colder waters and are frequent exhibitions in aquariums because they are so unique.
What makes these white whales stand out from the rest? And why does seeing a beluga almost certainly put a smile on your face?
1. Belugas are pretty small compared to other whale species
On average they can grow to about 18 feet in length and weigh about a ton. In comparison, a blue whale is five times longer than a beluga and weigh up to 150 times a beluga’s weight. A beluga is about the length of a bus or more, which is still pretty long compared to a human.
Almost half of a beluga’s body weight is made of blubber, which serves to keep sea mammals like them warm and store energy for later use.
2. Belugas are known as the “canary of the sea”
White whales are social creatures that have a wide range of sounds they use to communicate within their pods, like clicks, moos, whistles, mews, bleats, chirps and clangs. Belugas are also able to mimic sounds, further expanding their repertoire of vocal emissions.
3. Belugas also use bubbles to communicate
White whales are not just masters at vocal communication, they can also blow a mean bubble. Rings and bubbles released from the blowhole indicate playfulness, while sudden bursts of bubbles can be a defensive reaction. A pair of whales may blow matching bubble rings to show social bonding behavior. Bubble blowing can be amusing for belugas but they also have communicative functions.
4. Belugas are related to another unique sea mammal – the narwhal
The beluga’s narwhal cousins have a long, large horn on their foreheads that make them look like unicorns. The beluga and the narwhal are the only members of their genus – toothed whales.
5. Belugas have melons on their heads
A melon in this case is a round fatty bump on their head that is used to make facial expressions, make sounds to communicate and receive sounds when echo-locating. The natural sonar helps the whales locate things in the water, letting them swim, hunt, communicate and find blow holes through the ice in their habitat. The beluga uses the melon by clicking, which passes through the melon and is projected as a sound beam through the water. These sounds bounce off things and echo, telling the beluga information about the distance, size, shape, speed and internal structure of the object. Beluga melons can even change size when the beluga blows air around its sinuses.
6. Belugas have an unusual body type compared to other whales
Their round heads have a melon on top and a small beak, similar to a dolphin. They have narrower necks than other whales, and their neck vertebrae are not fused. This means that belugas can move their heads. Belugas also don’t have a dorsal fin and are white, which helps them survive in the cold waters they prefer. The white coloring acts as camouflage against the ice, hiding them from predators like orcas and polar bears. The lack of dorsal fin means that they lose less heat in their frigid Arctic Ocean habitat, and stops them from getting stuck in ice when they glide beneath ice sheets. Belugas have a dorsal ridge along their backs that they use along with their heads to break ice layers.
Beluga whales are round, especially when they are well fed. Their bodies taper suddenly to the head, making them look like they have shoulders. As they get older and their tail fins grow, they become more curved. Additionally, their flippers are short and broad, looking like square paddles.
7. Belugas are named after the Russian word for white, “belukha”
Baby belugas are called calves and are born grey. They turn white as they mature in about five years if they are female and about eight years if they are male. Beluga calves are 4 to 6 feet long at birth and weigh about 120 lbs.
8. Beluga teeth are used to hold their prey and instead of chewing they swallow them whole
Beluga whales eat fish, crustaceans, cephalopods and worms, but they don’t chew their food. They swallow their prey whole instead.
9. Belugas are social butterflies
White whales like to communicate with each other and other species, including humans. They live in small groups averaging 10 whales and can be seen in large pods of up to 1000 during mating season. In the winter, they migrate with their groups to warmer waters where they feed and give birth.
Belugas are curious, playful creatures – they sometimes chase each other and will play with objects found in the water, like plants, wood, bubbles and dead fish. They will even swim around boats and divers. However, you see a beluga in the wild, you should leave it alone and not attempt to pet it.
10. Beluga whales are listed as near threatened on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species
Worldwide, belugas number more than 150,000 and can be found in many places. However, belugas and all other whales are affected by human activity and development. Underwater noise can hurt a whale’s ability to hear and thus affect its ability to navigate, hunt and communicate.
Belugas were hunted for their oil, skin and flesh in the 19th century and into the early 20th century. Now, they are threatened because they are captured for captivity. They also face threats from climate change, pollution, and oil and gas development. Industrial pollution affects their food sources by generating toxins that are absorbed into single cell organisms – these toxins then are consumed further up the food chain until toxin levels are concentrated in large carnivores.
Extra facts about beluga whales:
Belugas in captivity have been recorded mimicking humans talking.
Belugas can live up to 80 years old, in captivity they reach about half that age.
Beluga whales are able to swim backwards!