In the midst of the warmer summer months, Belugas congregate in pods by the thousands in shallow Arctic estuaries, bays, and inlets. For the mother whales and most calves, this annual migration is a journey home, since Belugas instinctively return to their same breeding grounds year after year, a behavioral ritual known as philopatry. After many months swimming in icy winter waters, a summer vacation at home base is the perfect time to recoup and reenergize. Rubbing their bodies against the gravel seabed, the cetaceans methodically molt their tired, yellowed skin and return to the surface a shimmering white whale.
This distinctive, brilliant purity has always garnered particular admiration from humans. The creature's very name is an homage to its smooth cream coloring: the Russians used belyĭ, the word for "white," to create the name белуга - which is transliterated into English as "Beluga." The oft-nicknamed "white whale" could easily hide against the backdrop of polar ice packs, except for the species' highly social behavioral tendencies. Rarely traveling alone, Belugas constantly communicate with a dialect of high-pitched twitters, clicks, and squeaks - hardly elusive qualities. Sailors in the arduous Arctic waters who heard these sounds had another name for the chattering creature: the sea canary.
Most of the time, these cetacean conversations are inaudible to humans. Belugas spend a vast majority of their life submerged deep beneath the sea surface. Capable of diving more than 600 meters (2,000 feet), feeding frenzies often occur along the seabed at half that depth. Scouring the sandy floor with impressively flexible mouths, the Beluga uses powerful suction to suck in its prey, generally small crustaceans and cephalopods at this depth in the water. Despite a set of 38 teeth, the Beluga consumes all of its meals whole. Even salmon, herring, and arctic cod - the majority of the whale's dietary intake - are not chewed before swallowing.
Belugas are certainly not known for their predatory prowess, but they do possess one particularly unique asset in their hunting arsenal. Aside from striking white skin, the whale's most identifiable physical feature is its melon. This bulbous lump of oily, fatty tissue protruding from the forehead has a variety of uses: it can convey emotion, indicate health, intimidate competing males during the courtship of a female, and change shape if an individual is emitting a noise. For the purpose of hunting, the melon is integral to echolocation.
Focusing rapid clicking sent out from the nasal passages, the melon sends a single stream of sound straight ahead of the Beluga. Traveling through the water at 1.6 kilometers per second (1 mile per second), these sound waves bounce off objects and are received in fat-filled cavities in the lower jawbones. Moving through the ear, these echoes are converted into nerve impulses so the brain can interpret the size, shape, distance, and speed of the object.
During frigid winters, when the whales abandon shallow sanctuaries for the expansive Arctic oceans, the melon's auditory capabilities serve an even more critical purpose. Because Belugas habitually swim underneath massive floes and glaciers - in waters where ice can cover up to 96% of the surface - it is crucial to find openings to breathe. Beyond echolocation, it remains a mystery how the Beluga can consistently discover polynyas, trapped air underneath the frozen surface, and thin slivers of ice to break through in order to survive.
Over millions of years, the species has anatomically evolved in other ways to thrive in the aquatic far north. The Beluga's genus name, Delphinapterus, literally (and somewhat mistakenly) translates as "dolphin without a wing" - recognizing the noticeable absence of a dorsal fin that is prominently featured on the backs of most cetaceans. Touting only a dorsal ridge, the Beluga conserves body heat with less body surface area, and more easily maneuvers through the ice-filled waters. Further insulation is provided by 10-15 centimeters (4-6 inches) of blubber - and the mere fact that 50% of body weight is purely fat.
Unlike other whales, the vertebrae in the Beluga's neck are not fused together, allowing it the unique ability to turn its head from side to side. Behind the neck, the body tapers drastically, resulting in the creature's smooth yet stocky build. Smaller than most other toothed whales but larger than dolphins and porpoises, a male Beluga will grow to an average length of 5.5 meters (18 feet) and weight of 1,300 kilograms (nearly 3000 pounds). By sheer size alone, the Beluga is largely unthreatened; its only natural predators are orcas and polar bears, who wait to swipe whales surfacing for air.
Until the International Moratorium on Commercial Whaling was implemented in 1986, humans devastated the Beluga population worldwide with excessive hunting for oil and food. Nearly a quarter-century later, an estimated 100,000 white whales navigate the Arctic waters - far from extinction, yet still significantly lower than historical numbers.
Even with the threat of overhunting eliminated, humans still plague the population in other ways. Industrial development and pollution present the most serious problems for the species. In the Saint Lawrence River - where an isolated group of approximately 1,000 individuals spends every summer - Beluga carcasses are treated as toxic waste due to high levels of PCBs and organochlorines.
With an infrequent breeding schedule, the species is dependent on human conservation until its numbers are strengthened. Belugas only give birth to one calf every three years - an unsurprising figure considering gestation can last up to 15 months and offspring are completely dependent on their mother's milk for the first two years of life. Aside from their smaller size - 1.5 meters (5 feet) and 80 kilograms (less than 200 pounds) - calves are easily distinguished by their gray color.
Mothers and calves form an incredibly close bond, only separating when the latter is weaned. Philopatry makes reunions common, however, as mature adults often return to their own birthing grounds to breed their own new generation of baby Belugas.
A pod of Belugas are shown swimming near a vent hole in water where the St. Lawrence River empties into Bay of Gaspe. Beluga from this southernmost Canadian population are now isolated and have been severely diminished in numbers.
Arctic waters between 50-degrees and 80-degrees North
Fish, cephalopods, and crustaceans
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The Beluga is the State Fossil of Vermont. In 1849, bones were discovered beneath nearly 10 feet below thick blue clay in Charlotte, Vermont - more than 150 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean - that could only be identified as a Beluga. This makes Vermont the only state with an official fossil of an extant animal.
The first Beluga displayed in captivity was at the Barnum's Museum in New York City in 1861.
Belugas were used in anti-mining operations in Arctic waters by both the American and Russian navies.
Belugas are capable of swimming backwards.
Belugas are a particularly playful animal and will often use wood, plants, dead fish, and their own bubbles as sources of entertainment.
The Beluga's closest relative is the Narwhal - a whale with a long, helical tusk extending like a sword out of its jaw. These are the only two member of the Monodontidae family.