What is a Beluga Whale?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

The beluga whale, Delphinapterus leucas, or white whale, is a small, round-headed whale living in mostly Arctic ranges. Closely related to the Narwhal, the beluga whale is often called the Sea Canary for its high-pitched vocalizations. The all-white whale has long charmed fans, and is now displayed in captivity around the world.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

The white whale is smaller than most other toothed whales, with adults ranging from between 13-20 feet (4-6 m) and generally weighing around one ton (907 kg.) Babies are usually quite small and gray colored, usually weighing 150-200 lbs (68-90 kg.) Belugas gestate for about 15 months and nurse for approximately two years. The young animals lighten in color as they grow, and become pure white shortly after reaching sexual maturity, between seven and nine years of age.

The white whale is recognized for its distinctive singing. Belugas use echolocation to locate food and potential obstacles underwater, and are reported to be loud enough to hear above the water’s surface. Some observers have noted that the melon-shaped head of the whale changes shape depending on the whistles, clicks, and chirps it produces.

Beluga whale pods are notoriously variable, unlike with most other whale species. A whale may belong to several pods or family groups in their lifetimes. Adult males tend to congregate together in large groups, sometimes of more than one hundred animals. Females and calves stay closer together, although they may join multiple pods at traditional breeding and feeding grounds. Some observers have noticed mature whales returning to their birthplaces to temporarily reunite with their mothers.

There are believed to be around 100,000 belugas in the wild. As a long-lived apex predator, the beluga whale is considered an important barometer of environmental status. Human pollution has been shown to have an adverse affect on beluga population, with recent examinations of carcasses providing evidence of increased cancer rates. In one population, native to the Canadian St. Lawrence River, dead bodies of the whales are considered toxic waste, as they contain extremely high levels of dangerous chemicals. There is now great concern among experts that high pollution levels are leading to a lowered reproductive rate among the beluga whale and may cause long-term population damage.

Beluga whales were among the first whale species to be kept in captivity, beginning in 1861. Since then, they have been a popular staple of aquariums and sea-life parks. Detractors claim this practice is harmful to animals, as they are used to an enormous range and are placed under considerable stress in a tank environment. Proponents of captivity argue that allowing the public interaction with the animals promotes conservation efforts and permits closer scientific study than observation of wild animals.

For centuries, the beluga whale has been hunted by Inuit tribes throughout Canada and Alaska. While some whale communities have not been overly damaged by the hunting, other groups have been dangerously overhunted, leading to severely reduced numbers. Unsustainable hunting levels and rising pollution in home ranges has lead to several beluga whale communities being listed as endangered or at risk of endangerment by Canadian and American government agencies.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


Are there any of those in the Philippines?


They are so beautiful. Completely white, it seems to fully blend with their environment.

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