Remembering and protecting our beloved beluga

Why we need to take care of the “little white whale on the go.”
Over the past few months, I’ve discovered that the beluga is the favourite whale of many WWF staff.
And why is that? It’s not because of their celebrated songs that have earned them the nickname “canary of the sea” nor is it because of their mysterious and surprising traits. (Did you know they are in the same family as the narwhal?)

A beluga whale in the Arctic Ocean © Kevin Schafer / WWF-Canon

No, this love, in part, stems from Canada’s favourite children’s troubadour. Raffi’s playful and endearing song Baby Beluga captured the hearts and minds of many children, and has stayed with them as they’ve grown, resulting in an inspired generation that brings new energy to species conservation.
Unfortunately, despite our delight with this social whale, the beluga has been facing some tough challenges, and some populations are known to be declining. To raise awareness of the plight of the beluga, and also to remind Canadians of the reasons why we fell in love with them, WWF is dedicating this week to the beluga – the singing whale that needs our help!
The beluga is primarily known as an Arctic species, where it spends most of its time among the sea ice. As with many Arctic sea ice dependent species, beluga whales are affected by the loss of sea ice caused by climate change. They are being forced to adapt to the changing ecological system, which includes a new predator – the killer whale – as well as increased pressure from rapid development in the north. While this population is stable for now, population decline from these threats is imminent, providing yet another reason why we must ramp up our national and provincial commitments to reduce emissions causing climate change. In the meantime, WWF will continue to research and monitor this population in order to advocate for protection of regions that will help these whales adapt.
Beluga whales trapped at ice hole (Delphinapterus leucas) too far away to reach open sea, Canadian High Arctic.  © / Sue Flood / WWF
Beluga whales trapped at ice hole (Delphinapterus leucas) too far away to reach open sea, Canadian High Arctic. © / Sue Flood / WWF

While primarily an Arctic species, there are some beluga populations further south – including in the St. Lawrence estuary where freshwater originating from the Great Lakes mixes with salt water from the Atlantic Ocean. This heavily industrialized waterway has taken a toll on belugas, resulting in the once robust population of nearly 10,000, dwindling to the current estimated number: less than 900. This subpopulation has recently been assessed as endangered, and there is still much work to be done to identify and protect their unknown wintering grounds. While we are deeply concerned about what the future looks like for this species, there is some good news – this past winter we were able to celebrate a small victory when plans for a proposed oil terminal in Cacouna, QC, were cancelled in order to protect a known critical habitat for female beluga whales and their young.
For now, the beluga is still “swimming wild and free”. But as these pressures continue to grow and challenge the health and well-being of our beloved beluga, WWF-Canada will continue to speak out on its behalf, to both protect their habitat and to require better enforcement of species at risk legislation.
When asked about how he feels about the plight of the little while whale today, Raffi refers to the recent decision in favour of the belugas in Cacouna, QC; “It’s good that belugas can be a reminder for us of what’s precious and what we want to preserve in our world – including them.”
If we think of the canary of the sea as the canary in the coal mine, we should all feel emboldened to act now to preserve this precious whale and its marine habitat.
We hope you’ll join us this week as we explore all of these stories, and some pretty interesting facts. You can learn more about belugas here.
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