Beluga Whale (Eastern High Arctic – Baffin Bay population)

Delphinapterus leucas

SARA Status
No Status
NS
Special Concern
SC
Threatened
TH
Endangered
EN
Extirpated
EX

ARA Status

  • No Status NS
  • Special Concern SC
  • Threatened TH
  • Endangered EN
  • Extirpated EX
COSEWIC Status
Not at Risk
NR
Special Concern
SC
Threatened
TH
Endangered
EN
Extirpated
EX

COSEWIC Status

  • Not at Risk NR
  • Special Concern SC
  • Threatened TH
  • Endangered EN
  • Extirpated EX

This population of beluga has been identified as Special Concern by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) but was not listed under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). Protection is afforded through the federal Fisheries Act.

General Description

The Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas) is a toothed whale and belongs to the family Monodontidae. It derives its name from the Russian belukha, which means white. This whale is also known as white whale in English, qilalugaq in the Inuktitut, Inuvialuktan and Inuinactun dialects, and siqsuaq in the Inupiat dialect. Belugas have the following characteristics and distinguishing features:

  • Adults range in total length from 2.6 to 4.5 m and weigh up to 1,900 kg;
  • Adult females are about 80% the length of males; newborn calves are about 48% the length of their mothers;
  • Adults are pure white in colour; newborns are born a dark grey, sometimes with mottling, and lighten as they mature; and
  • Belugas lack a dorsal fin, possibly an adaptation to ice-filled waters of the Arctic.

Distribution

The Beluga Whale has a circumpolar distribution, found in the Arctic as far as 82°N latitude, in the Pacific sub-Arctic south to 60°N (Alaska), and in the St. Lawrence Estuary as far south as 47°N. A total of 22 possible populations have recently been designated, seven of which are present in Canadian waters during at least part of the year. The Eastern High Arctic-Baffin Bay population spends the summer in the islands of the Canadian Archipelago centered around the waters of Prince Regent Inlet, Peel Sound and Barrow Strait. In the late summer and early fall, these whales migrate through Lancaster Sound to the waters north of Baffin Bay in the area of the North Water polynya. Some whales continue eastward and southward along the West Greenland coast to winter.

Habitat and Life History

The Beluga Whale uses different habitats depending on the season and progression of ice breakup and freeze. Typically, in the late spring, they congregate along ice edges, penetrate leads, and may appear in river estuaries. During the summer, they are found along the coastline and in shallow waters. They also frequent specific river estuaries, which may serve as moulting sites or as shelter from predators. In late summer or early fall, they leave the estuarine areas for deeper waters, possibly to feed intensively. From there, they migrate to offshore winter areas, sometimes over long distances. In late winter to early spring, mating occurs. Very little is known about the breeding behaviour of Beluga Whales. Females become sexually mature between four and seven years of age, males between six and seven years. Gestation takes about 13 to 14.5 months. The lactation period is estimated to be 20 to 32 months. For this population of beluga, the average lifespan is 10 to 15 years, with some individuals reaching 40 to 50 years.

Diet

Beluga Whales feed on small fish and crustaceans. In High Arctic waters, they feed on Turbot (Reinhardtius Hippoglossoides) and Arctic Cod (Boreogadus saida). They also eat Arctic Charr (Salvelinus alpinus), squid, shrimp, molluscs and marine worms.

Threats

Beluga Whales are vulnerable to predation by Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus) and Killer Whales (Orcinus orca). Their propensity to return to the same estuaries year after year makes them vulnerable to human hunting and disturbance. For the Eastern High Arctic-Baffin Bay population, exploitation by Greenland Inuit has had an adverse effect on whales that overwinter along the West Greenland coast. This is not a concern for Beluga that winter in the North Water polynya area.

© Shutterstock

© Shutterstock

Photo of a Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas)

© W. Klenner

Similar Species

There are no similar species.

Text Sources: Richard 2001; COSEWIC Status Report 2004.

For more information, visit the Species at Risk (SARA) Public Registry.

Beluga Whale (Eastern High Arctic – Baffin Bay population)

Illustration of a Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas)

Delphinapterus leucas - Illustration by G. Kuehl

Scientific name: Delphinapterus leucas
SARA Status: No Status
COSEWIC Status: Special Concern (May 2004)
Region: Arctic

Beluga Whale Distribution: Eastern High Arctic poulation as described in the following paragraph.

Beluga Whale Distribution: Eastern High Arctic Population

Related Information

Did you know?

Whale talk
Belugas are very vocal animals, making a cacophony of sounds that range from high-pitched whistles to low, repeated grunts. The sounds are probably used for communication. For example, researchers have observed that squawks are emitted with more frequency when belugas are alarmed.

Belugas also have a well-developed sense of hearing and refined ability to detect objects by sound. Called echo-location, this natural sonar is important to a species that lives a good part of its life in dark waters. At depths greater than 100 metres, there is virtually no light and belugas make frequent dives to depths of several hundred metres. Visibility in water can be further reduced by silt runoff in river estuaries, or by the ice cover and short days of a polar winter. To navigate and catch prey, belugas use a series of clicking sounds that bounce off fish and other objects in the water. The resulting echoes enable the belugas to build an accurate picture of what’s around them.