Beluga Whale Photo By Stan Shebs
The Beluga Whale is one of the most distinctive mammals to live in the ocean. Two unusual characteristics capture the eye’s attention, its whiteness and its strangely-shaped head.
The melon-shaped head is not exclusive to Beluga whales and is a common feature of toothed whales such as the Sperm Whale. What is different about the Beluga’s head is its ability to turn sideways. Most dolphins and whales have neck vertebrae that are fused together. Unlike the Beluga whale, they cannot turn their heads sideways. This allows Belugas more facial movement than other species of cetacean.
Any interesting adaptation is the Beluga whale’s ability to alter the shape of its head by filling its sinus with air.
The Beluga has up to 40 teeth. Although closely related to the Narwhal the Beluga whale does not possess the massive tusks of its close relative.
The smooth aerodynamic body of the Beluga is round at the front tapering away to the tail. The Beluga whale has no dorsal fin which probably aids it in dealing with an icy environment.
A Challenging Environment
Belugas are migratory mammals. They have winter and summer grounds. Usually they will return to the same summer territory. In winter, most will follow the growing icepack as it engulfs the Arctic waters.
Not all Belugas whales will remain on the clear side of the icepack. Some will venture under the ice displaying some remarkable adaptations in the process. These adaptations are not fully understood but it is believed that they possess highly sensitive echo-location that guides them to holes and inlets allowing them to breathe. These senses are so precise that Belugas can also locate air pockets in the ice.
Without this remarkable ability it is extremely doubtful that Beluga whales would be able to survive in such dangerous conditions.
Belugas are a gregarious species of whale. They congregate in pods numbering up to several hundred members. These numbers can swell to the thousands when they are found in estuaries.
Pods are fluid entities with membership being only temporary and individuals mix with other groups on a frequent basis.
Mothers and their calves perhaps unsurprisingly form the closest bond in the Beluga whale kingdom. Calves are usually nursed for up to two years but it is not uncommon for the period to be extended. Mothers and their offspring sometimes meet up in summer grounds years after the nursing period.
Reproduction And The Calves
Beluga females have generally being observed to produce one calf every three years. The gestation period is usually 13 to 14 months long.
Once born, calves, unlike the adults, are grey in colour. They weigh as much as a robust adult male human at 80 kilogrammes (177 lbs) and are already one and a half metres in length (five feet).
The Beluga Whale Diet
The Beluga whale diet is comprised mainly of fish, crustaceans and cephalopods such as octopus and squid. It is believed that they spit water at sand to dislodge crabs and other seabed life for an easy meal. Their dives often take between a quarter of an hour and 20 minutes reaching depths of up to 300 metres (1,000 feet).
As far as we are aware, Beluga whales are victim to only two natural predators. Occasionally, the Beluga can get caught by the moving icepack and become cut off from the ocean. When this happens Polar Bears can drag them out of the water for a relatively easy meal. Their other natural predator is the Orca Whale.
Belugas are not hunted in the same numbers that other whales are caught and killed. They are captured alive and used in aquariums and large water parks. Russia is one of the biggest providers of captured Belugas whales after Canada banned the practice.
Belugas are very valued and individuals can cost $100,000 on the open market. The reasons why they are in such demand is probably down to three factors their unusual white colour which people deem attractive, the playful natures and what appears to be facial expressions.
Like dolphins, Belugas are very playful and they sometimes spit water at other whales and even people.
As mentioned previously the fact that their neck vertebrae is not fixed allows them more movement than other cetaceans. For these demand-fed reasons capturing Beluga whales is a highly profitable industry that shows no signs of abating.
Once captive the chances of Belugas successfully breeding are highly improbable. It is for this reason that most captive whales have come from the wild.
In a remarkable tale, mentioned on Wikipedia, one captive Beluga used for underwater anti-mining operations saved the life of a diver who became paralyzed with cramp.
Victims Of Pollution
Like Polar Bears, Beluga whales are suffering from being exposed to high concentrations of pollutants. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have been found in concentrations exceeding 800 parts per million.
So far the effects of these chemicals on Beluga whales are unknown. However, it may be reasonable to believe that they cause endocrine disruption and cancers as in the case of the Polar Bear and people respectively.
- Beluga whales can be over six metres (20 feet) in length.
- Males can weigh in excess of 1,600 kilogrammes (3,500 lbs).
- Beluga whales are found in the cold Arctic and sub-Arctic waters.
- They can live to be older than 50 years of age.
Among Giants: A Life With Whales is the fascinating story of underwater photographer, Charles ‘Flip’ Nicklin. Full of stunning pictures and insightful commentary about the whales this book is stunning.
You can obtain Among Giants: A Life with Whales here from Amazon.
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For Canada: Among Giants: A Life with Whales.
For Germany: Among Giants: A Life with Whales.