Belugas, or white whales, are a medium sized toothed whale recognizable by their rounded forehead, upturned mouth and colouration. Belugas are born pink or brown, turn grey within a few weeks of birth, and slowly lighten through loss of pigment cells to their characteristic white by sexual maturity. Belugas, like other Arctic whales, have no dorsal fin but a dorsal ridge that is thought to be an adaptation to life in ice-filled water. A male beluga can reach more than 5 meters and a weight of 1,400 kilograms, while females have been recorded up to a length of just over 4 meters and weight between 250 to 700 kilograms. Belugas do not have fused cervical vertebrae like other whales and have the ability to turn their head from side to side.
A long-lived and slow reproducing species, belugas are thought to have a lifespan of 60-70 years and give birth to a single calf every two to three years.
A female beluga is sexually mature at between four and seven years old. Gestation lasts 14 to15 months and calves are born between May and September. Female belugas give birth to one calf an average of every three years.
They are considered generalist feeders and have a varied diet of small fish and crustaceans such as Arctic cod (Boreogadus saida), capelin (Mallotus villsus) and shrimp (Pandalus borealis).
Belugas swim on average 2-4 km/hr but can move at speeds of up to 20 km/hr. They have been known to dive to depths of more than 800 meters, with dives lasting up to 25 minutes. They are social animals and are often seen in pods of two to six animals of mixed age classes as well as groups of adults with young calves. In summer and during migration they can be seen herds of hundreds to thousands of animals.
Belugas have a circumpolar Arctic and sub-Arctic distribution inhabiting waters around Canada, the United States, Europe and Russia. They are a migratory species with high site fidelity returning to the same seasonal locations each year, selecting shallow water and estuaries in summer and deeper water in winter. The smallest population in Canada, the St. Lawrence population, moves less than 500 km between the St Lawrence Estuary and Saguenay River in summer and the Gulf of St. Lawrence in winter. The largest population, the Western Hudson Bay population, travels over 1,000 km between its summer grounds around Hudson Bay north to Hudson Strait in the fall.
The current global estimate of belugas is approximately 200,000 with more than half of the population residing in Canadian waters. Populations are identified by their summering locations and may overlap at various times of the year.
Belugas are extremely vocal animals. Dubbed 'canaries of the sea' by early european whalers, belugas use sound and echolocation to communicate, navigate, and search for prey.
Harvested in summer and during spring and fall migration, belugas are important to the culture, economy, and food security of Inuit communities in Nunavut, Nunavik and the Inuvialuit Settlement Regions in Canada. Muktuk, or skin and blubber, is a favorite traditional food item across the north.
Threats to belugas include habitat destruction, noise pollution and climate change. As an ice associated species, belugas are considered to be highly sensitive to climatic changes and changing ice conditions due to their preference for dense pack ice in winter.