Beluga Whale | Oceana Canada

Canadian Marine Life Encyclopedia

Beluga Whale

Delphinapterus leucas

Also known as

White whale, sea canary, beluga

Distribution

Throughout the Arctic ocean and the St. Lawrence Estuary

Ecosystem/Habitat

Shallow, coastal waters and near ice edge

Feeding Habits

Foraging predator

Conservation Status

Endangered/Threatened/Special Concern

Taxonomy

Suborder Odontoceti (toothed whales); Family Monodontidae (white whales)

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Beluga whales are easy to spot, thanks to their white colour, large size and bulging forehead. At birth these pale whales aren’t white at all – they’re slate grey, and it can take up to eight years to develop their distinct white colour. They are unique among whales because they have very flexible necks and can move their head in almost any direction, separately from their body. They are also known as “sea canaries” because they are a chatty species. They are able to create such a wide variety of sounds due to the tissue in their large, bulbous forehead, called a melon, which is used to create and amplify sounds in the marine environment. The noises belugas make are both to communicate with their pod as well as to navigate. Belugas use echolocation to navigate in the dark waters of the Arctic Ocean.

Belugas are culturally important to many Inuit communities living in the Canadian Arctic. Their skin and blubber are harvested as a source of food and for other cultural traditions. These fisheries are highly regulated, but are recognized as being important for subsistence and cultural purposes. Belugas were targeted by the commercial whaling industry for about 200 years, but this practice ended in the 1970s. They were also a popular species targeted for the aquarium trade throughout the late 1900s, but there have been no live-captures for the aquarium trade since 1992. Today, belugas are not targeted by fisheries except in traditional Inuit fisheries, but are still impacted by fisheries and humans due to vessel strikes, entanglements in active and abandoned fishing gear, and competition for food with commercial and recreational fisheries.