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Ten fun facts about beluga whales

In another of our guests blogs as part of #whaleweek, Natalie Kyriacou founder and CEO WDC partner, ‘My Green World’, highlights a few fascinating facts about beluga whales.

The beluga whale, or white whale, is an Arctic and sub-Arctic cetacean. Belugas have long been a source of fascination for many, due to their unique white colouring and lack of a dorsal fin. Unfortunately, belugas are one of the most commonly kept cetaceans (whale/dolphin) in captivity and classifed as “near threatened” on the IUCN red list.

Here are our top ten facts on the wonderful beluga:

  1. Despite being a ‘toothed whale’, beluga whales do not chew their food; instead they swallow their prey whole.
     
  2. The average gestation period (the period between conception and birth) for beluga whales lasts between 14 -15 months. Females whales give birth to a single calf once every three years on average and their newborns are around five ft. long, usually nursing from their mothers for up to two years.
     
  3. The word beluga comes from the Russian word “bielo” meaning white. However, these white whales are born dark gray. It can take up to eight years before they turn completely white.
     
  4. The beluga is able to swim backwards.
     
  5. In 2009, a captive beluga whale rescued a distressed participant of a free diving competition by pushing her to the surface.
     
  6. Threats to beluga whales include captivity, climate change, hunting, oil and gas development, and industrial and urban pollution. Polar bears and orcas are known predators of belugas throughout their Arctic range.
     
  7. Belugas are sometimes referred to as “melonheads” due to the bulbous structure that occupies the whale’s forehead. The fatty organ is believed to aid in echolocation (a process in which animals use echoes of their calls to locate and identify objects), and it can be observed changing shape during whale vocalizations. Another nickname belugas have earned for themselves is “sea canary” due to the rich and varied vocal range of the beluga. Scientists have documented at least 11 distinct beluga whale sounds, including high-pitched whistles, clicks, mews, bleats, chirps, and bell-like tones.
     
  8. The vertebrae in a beluga’s neck is not fused together, giving them the unusual ability to turn its head up, down and side-to-side. The adaptation is thought to help them target their prey in areas that are full of ice or silt.
     
  9. Beluga whales living in captivity have been reported to mimic the speech of their human handlers. Noc, a beluga whale who lived at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego for 30 years, was one of the first belugas observed to exhibit this type of behavior. Noc managed to convince a human diver to climb out of the whale’s tank when he heard what he thought was another person instructing him to leave. It turned out that the sound had actually been Noc mimicking the word “out”.
     
  10. Belugas are highly social creatures and generally live together in small groups known as pods. These vocal communicators are often found in the Arctic Ocean’s coastal waters travelling, foraging and socializing in both small and large pods.

Belugas and all whales are negatively affected by human activity, including increased development, shipping, oil and gas production and transport, indirect and direct adverse effects from commercial fishing gear and operations, pollution, and habitat destruction and alteration. An increasing concern in marine habitats is noise, which can cause damage to a whale’s hearing and damage its ability to communicate, navigate, and locate prey.

WDC is grateful to our guest bloggers and value their contributions to whale conservation. The views and opinions expressed by our guest bloggers are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of, and should not be attributed to, WDC.

Find out more about WDC’s exciting work to help beluga whales.