After the Thames beluga captured the public’s imagination we take a closer look at this iconic species
Name: Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas)
Location: Subarctic to high arctic waters
Conservation status: Least concern
Beluga whales are amongst the most iconic species of cetacean with their striking white colouration, ‘smiling’ faces, and lack of dorsal fin making them instantly identifiable.
They are born a dark grey colour but become paler as they mature and by sexual maturity at around the age of 10, they appear pure white. Unlike most other cetaceans, the vertebrae in a belugas neck are not fused giving the animal much more flexibility and allowing them to move their heads from side to side and up and down.
The species use to be called the ‘Sea Canary’ by ancient mariners as result of their distinctive range of clicks, squawks, squeaks and whistles which can be heard clearly from above the surface.
Slow swimmers, they are usually found in groups of two to twenty-five animals which are often all the same age and sex. They feed on squid, small fish and crustaceans which they hunt for on the sea bed. They have been recorded reaching depths of up to 950m and diving for up to fifteen minutes.
The can live in a wide range of habitats, but will spend winter and spring close to pack ice or underneath it, looking for open patches of water to use as breathing holes. When the ice melts during the early summer it frees up costal bays, inlets and estuaries which are favoured by the whales until the ice returns in the autumn and the belugas retreat. During summer gatherings in selected estuaries animals can number in the thousands.
They are an extremely inquisitive species and often approach boats and divers which has historically made them a prime target for whaling. Belugas are also sadly still seen commonly in aquariums across the world.
Beluga whales are also known to be hunted by polar bears when surfacing for air, and some pods show significant scarring from unsuccessful attacks.
Estimated population is 150,000 and the best places to see them are Greenland, European Russia and Svalbard.