Belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) are one of the most recognizable and popular whales because of their white skin colour and ‘smiling’ upturned mouth. They live primarily in areas with Arctic sea ice, with about two-thirds of the world population (approximately 150,000 whales) summering in Canadian waters. A few small populations are found further south and are relics from the last ice age, including the famous St. Lawrence River belugas.
One of the most resilient whale species in the Arctic, they have been impacted by rapid climate change, chemical and noise pollution and over-exploitation. Belugas, like the other ice whales (narwhal and bowhead), depend on sea ice for protection from predatory killer whales, which are an increasing threat as sea ice retreats and opens new areas to the killer whale.
The beluga is an ice-associated species. It evolved without a dorsal fin, allowing the beluga to move easily among the sea ice and seek out cracks in the ice to breathe. The sea ice forms an important foundation of the beluga’s food web and provides these relatively slow-swimming whales with protection from predatory killer whales.
- Called qilalugaq by Inuit, about two-thirds of the world’s beluga whales live in the Canadian Arctic Ocean and St. Lawrence River.
- Belugas, who can live to be 40, rub against the fine sediment in river estuaries to help shed their old skin each year.
- Contaminants from toxic chemicals are absorbed in belugas’ fatty tissue. In the 1990s, WWF helped address this issue by working to increase regulations on toxics.
- These “canaries of the sea” are known for their beautiful, song-like vocalizations. (One whale has even been recorded mimicking human speaking tones!)
- Increased shipping activity where belugas swim makes for louder oceans, which in turn could affect belugas’ ability to communicate and thrive. Your contributions to WWF supports conservation work including leading ocean acoustics research to understand this impact.
You can experience the beauty of belugas and support WWF’s conservation work by purchasing a Panda Ball raffle ticket. Click here for details on how you can enter to win a Frontiers North Adventures trip for two to get up close and personal with belugas in Churchill, Manitoba. Open to Ontario residents only.