Aquatic Species at Risk - Beluga Whale (Ungava Bay)

Species - Details

Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas)
J. Orr

Scientific name:
Delphinapterus leucas
Mammals (marine)
Endangered, under consideration for addition to SARA
Region: Nunavut and Quebec, Arctic and Atlantic Oceans

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.

At a Glance

With its pure white skin and prominent and bulging forehead, the beluga whale is easy to identify. In fact, beluga even means ‘the white one’ in Russian. The Ungava Bay population of Beluga whales experienced a dramatic decline at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, caused for the most part by the excessive commercial whaling. Although commercial hunting all but ceased by 1950, beluga numbers have not shown any signs of recovery. At the present time, the Ungava Bay population of beluga whales is thought to number less than 100.

About the beluga whale

Belugas, also known as white whales, are warm-blooded, air-breathing mammals, well adapted to life in cold arctic waters. A layer of blubber between 2.5 and 9.5 centimetres thick, which lies beneath the skin, acts as an efficient insulator—helping to maintain body temperature—and is an energy reserve.

Ages of beluga whales, and many other wild mammals, are determined by counting growth layer markings in their teeth. For years it was thought that belugas were unique among mammals because it had previously been accepted that two growth layers represented one year of growth. New scientific evidence published in 2006 rejected that interpretation and concluded that one growth layer actually represents one year of growth.

In the wild, belugas can live for 75 years or more. Males reach sexual maturity at 12 to 14 years, while females become sexually mature from 8 to 14 years of age. Belugas breed about every three years, between April and June. A female gives birth to one calf (about 1.5 m long) around July or August, after a gestation period of 14.5 months.

Beluga whales travel in pods of two to 10 whales, although larger pods are not uncommon.

How to recognize a beluga whale

Beluga whales have stout bodies, well-defined necks and a disproportionately small head. They have thick skins, short but broad paddle-shaped flippers, and sharp teeth. Unlike other whales, the beluga doesn’t have a dorsal fin. Belugas average 3 to 5 metres in length and weigh between 500 and 1,500 kilograms. Male whales have a marked upward curve at the top of their flippers.

Although also known as white whales, only adult belugas are white; calves are born brown or dark grey and gradually pale to become totally white at between six and eight years of age.

Illustration of a Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas)

Delphinapterus leucas - Illustration by G. Kuehl

Photo of a Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas)

Photo credit: J. Klenner, DFO

Diving deep

In order to feed successfully, belugas spend a significant amount of time underwater. The belugas are capable of frequent dives to depths of between 400 and 800 metres. The deepest dive recorded for a beluga was in excess of 1,000 metres. Like other marine mammals, belugas have specific adaptations for diving: twice as much blood in their systems as land animals of similar size, and blood cells that contain 10 times as much oxygen. Other adaptations include a lower sensitivity to carbon dioxide build-up and a greater ability for muscles to function with depleted oxygen levels.

Where it lives

The beluga whale lives in cold arctic waters, traveling from habitat to habitat. Its movements are driven by the need for ice-free water and sufficient quantities of food to eat. In winter, the whale is found in leads and polynyas—areas of open water; in summer it frequents shallow bays and estuaries.

Female belugas with young prefer calm, shallow waters along reef edges, close to large islands, and in large bays. These waters have warm surface temperatures and sand, gravel or mud floors that support the molluscs, crustacea and bottom fish eaten by belugas. Adults and weaned young belugas favour areas where the water depth varies and where surface temperatures are cold.

Why it’s at risk

Hunting is certainly the main cause of the dramatic declines in beluga populations. However, contributing factors include alterations to habitats—such as damming of rivers—and noise pollution caused by ships and pleasure craft. The boats interfere with the belugas’ echo-location method of hunting.

As well, dredging, shipping, industrial activity and environmental pollution have contaminated the water in which the beluga lives, resulting in a decline in habitat quality and food supply.

What’s being done

The Ungava Bay population of beluga whale is designated as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and is under consideration for addition to the Species at Risk Act (SARA). The whale is also protected under a number of other Acts, regulations and agreements.

A recovery strategy that covers the beluga populations of Ungava Bay and eastern Hudson Bay is being developed by the Ungava Bay and eastern Hudson Bay recovery team. Projects initiated to date include population studies that count numbers and track the belugas movements, and an investigation into effects of noise disturbance. A management plan has been developed that sets quotas for subsistence hunting, creates sanctuaries and restricts boat traffic in certain areas.

Following consultations with Inuit organizations in 2002, the management plan was revised and the subsistence hunt of beluga whales in Ungava Bay was closed to try to stop the population from dying out completely.

What can you do?

Beluga whales will get the protection they need only if all Canadians work together to reduce threats. Find out more about beluga whales and be aware of man-made threats. Do your best to reduce these threats wherever possible to better protect the whales’ critical habitat. Get involved with the Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk (HSP) or another conservation organization.

Background information provided by Environment Canada in March 2004.