Basic Facts About Beluga Whales
Adult beluga whales are easily distinguished by their often pure white skin, their small size and their lack of dorsal fin. Belugas have a broad, rounded head and a large forehead. They are well adapted to their arctic and sub-arctic environment, with a five-inch-thick layer of blubber and a tough dorsal ridge that helps them travel through sea ice waters. Belugas are toothed whales. They have broad, paddle-like flippers and notched tails.
Because beluga whales eat marine species that are most common each season, they play an important role in the health of the overall ecosystem. They are also one of Alaska’s most well-known marine animals and a key draw for tourists and residents traveling along the coastal areas in the state.
Beluga whales are opportunistic feeders. They feed on salmon, eulachon, tomcod, smelt, char, rainbow sole, whitefish, saffron and arctic cod, herring, shrimp, mussels, octopus, crabs, clams, mussels, snails and sandworms.
Though difficult to obtain an accurate count because they are so widely distributed, it is estimated that beluga whales number in the hundreds of thousands.
Did You Know?
Unlike other cetaceans, belugas can move their head up, down, and side-to-side because their cervical vertebrae are not fused. This adaptation is believed to help them maneuver and catch prey in silt-laden or ice-covered areas.
Habitat & Range
Beluga whales are distributed throughout seasonally ice-covered arctic and subarctic waters. They inhabit waters off the shores of Russia, Greenland, Canada, Norway and the United States (Alaska). Genetic research has determined that there are five beluga whales stocks within U.S. waters: Cook Inlet, Bristol Bay, eastern Bering Sea, eastern Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea.
Belugas forage for food in the water column and on the seabed. This typically takes place at depths of up to 1,000 feet, but they can dive to at least twice this depth. Belugas congregate and travel in groups from 2-3 to as many as several hundred. Some are migratory within their limited range, while others remain residents of a particular area. They are found close to shore or in the open sea. During the summer months in some areas they gather in the estuaries of rivers to feed and calve.
Belugas use sound to find their prey. They also use sound to communicate and navigate by producing a variety of clicks, chirps and whistles.
Young belugas are usually dark grey in color. The grey steadily lightens as they grow up - reaching their permanent color by the age of seven for females and nine for males. Calves nurse for about two years.
Mating Season: Late winter - early spring
Gestation: 15 months
Number of offspring: 1 calf
Scientific name: Delphinapterus leucas
Length: Males,15 feet; females up to 14 feet
Weight: Adult males 3,000 lbs; females 2,000 lbs.
Lifespan: 30 - 50 years