© Shutterstock Beluga whale


With their “smiling” upturned mouths and pearly white skin, belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) are one of the most popular and recognizable whales.

About Belugas

Belugas are extremely sociable mammals that live, hunt and migrate together in pods ranging from a few individuals to hundreds of whales. Belugas live primarily in areas with Arctic sea ice, with about two-thirds of the world population (of approximately 180,000s) summering in Canadian waters. A few small populations, including the St. Lawrence Estuary belugas, are found farther south, relics from the last ice age. Relative to other whale species, belugas have long, distinct necks and unfused neck vertebrae, which contribute to their flexibility and diverse swimming movements. Their bulbous forehead, called a “melon,” is capable of changing shape, allowing them to make different facial expressions and make the communication and navigation-aiding chirps, clicks, whistles and squeals which give the beluga its other name, the “canary of the sea.” These calls are used to communicate with other belugas and to help them navigate and find food using echolocation.

Beluga Whale Facts

Beluga whale tail

Beluga Whale Facts

Near threatened

Scientific name:

Delphinapterus leucas

Adult weight:

Up to 1900 kg

Adult length:

Up to 4.5 metres (females are up to 80 per cent the length of males)

Global status:

Various statuses, from Endangered to Threatened to Special Concern in Canada (IUCN Redlist)

Near Threatened Under current evaluation it does not qualify for Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable , but could likely qualify for a threatened category in the near future.

Inuktitut name:

Qilalugaq and other variations

Did You Know?

The word beluga comes from the Russian word “bielo” meaning white; however, these whales are born dark gray. It can take eight years for them to turn white.

Beluga range map

Beluga population distribution and range

Why Are Beluga Whales Important?

Beluga whales are close to the top of the Arctic food chain, which makes them powerful indicators of the health of their environment. The stressors beluga whales face at the southern portion of their range, including toxic pollution, are an early warning of what could come to northern belugas. Northern beluga habitat is relatively more pristine but is undergoing rapid change and development.

Beluga whales are also culturally important to Inuit and Inuvialuit communities across the Canadian Arctic. The skin and outer blubber layers, called maktaaq, are an important food source for northern people.

Like polar bears, the beluga depends on sea ice for its existence and can be directly impacted by climate change.

© David Merron / WWF-US Beluga whale, Somerset Island, Canadian High Arctic.


Thousands of years of evolution have prepared Arctic species like the beluga for life on and around sea ice. Because of climate change, that ice cover has been changing rapidly, in both extent and thickness, and shrinking far too quickly for these species to adapt. Belugas depend on the sea ice for protection from predatory killer whales. Killer whales are becoming an increasing threat as the climate warms and sea ice retreats.

The melting ice is also opening Arctic waters to more human activities – including fishing, oil and gas exploration, mining operations and shipping. Seismic explorations and intense commercial shipping are causing noise pollution that likely has a major impact on belugas’ ability to communicate, detect predators, find food, and care for their young. Other threats, particularly to the St. Lawrence beluga population, include contamination by toxic chemicals, and a reduction in the abundance, quality, and availability of prey.

Belugas migrate to specific feeding, moulting and nursing areas every year. Their future depends on continued use of these important natural areas, unaffected by the adverse impacts of human activities.

What WWF-Canada is Doing

WWF-Canada is working to help identify critical beluga habitats in the Arctic. We have supported Arctic beluga satellite research, as well as community-based projects monitoring beluga health, and we are supporting research to better understand the impacts of ocean noise on their populations. We have also supported work on St. Lawrence Estuary belugas through our Endangered Species Recovery Fund and founded a recovery team for the St. Lawrence population.

We are working with Inuit organizations, scientists, governments and environmental organizations to ensure that all new industrial activities are planned carefully, so that beluga populations remain healthy in a rapidly changing marine ecosystem.

We are working to address the effects of climate change by advocating for a shift to a 100 per cent renewable-energy economy by 2050 and ensuring belugas have the resources they need to adapt to life on a changing planet. WWF-Canada also completed an oil spill trajectory modelling project to show how multiple oil spills in the Arctic’s Beaufort Sea could affect local wildlife, including belugas. (Learn more about the risks of potential oil spills in the Beaufort Sea at arcticspills.wwf.ca.)

© naturepl.com / Doc White / WWF Large pod of Beluga whales in the Canadian Arctic.

What You Can Do

WWF-Canada is working to help identify and protect critical habitat for belugas. Your donation will help support WWF-Canada’s work in the Arctic.

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