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Scientific Name: Delphinapterus leucas
Suborder: Odontoceti
Family: Monodontidae
Size: 3 - 5 m
Weight: 400 - 1500 Kg
Group Size: 5 - 20 individuals
Habitat: Inshore (sometimes Offshore and Riverine)
Hemisphere: North Only
Beluga (Delphinapterus leucas)

The name Beluga has a clearly Slavonic root. Indeed, "Belyj" means "white" in Russian, and the white skin of an adult Beluga makes confusion with any other Cetacean very unlikely.
Belugas turn white between the age of 5 and 8, juveniles being first dark slate gray, then gray and eventually more and more white as they approach maturity. As the newborn are given birth at lower latitudes and in often less clear and icy waters, all these colours (both gray and white) act as a successful camouflage.

The Beluga only inhabits the Northern Hemisphere, where it can be found in subarctic to arctic waters only, and often follows the formation and retreat of ice.

Some typical features of this species include:
  • very short beak (though prominent underneath the melon)
  • big rounded melon
  • spatula-like flippers (pectoral fins)
  • lack of a dorsal fin
  • distinct notch in the middle of flukes
The Beluga is a highly gregarious animal, and lone individuals are rarely seen except older males travelling on their own during migrations. This tendency to form large and stable groups is also shared by the other member of the Monodontidae family: the Narwal.

The melon is moved at will by the animal, that can thus produce a uniquely wide variety of sounds by shrinking and bulging it.
It is because of these whistles, squeaks, squeals and moos that the Beluga is often nicknamed "Sea Canary".
As the melon is used by toothed whales to focus sound, most scientists believe that because of its melon the Beluga has probably the most sophisticated sonar system of all Odontoceti. Indeed, the Beluga is able to efficiently swim in extremely shallow waters, so shallow that sometimes the top of its back can be exposed to air.

The Beluga is also unique among Cetaceans in that it is able to move its neck. Indeed, its cervical vertebrae are not fused together.
It can be interesting to point out that Evolution made the neck of Cetaceans stiff in the aim of improving their hydrodynamicity. It should not therefore be surprising to find out that the Beluga is a slow swimmer.

Its limited speed is though counterbalanced by the highly developed echolocation system, which helps the Beluga to both hide from predators and find its preys.
Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that echolocation implies the generation of sounds in the water, which means the echolocating animal can be echolocated back.
It is by balancing all these factors that the Beluga tries its best to escape an equally sonar-equipped predator: the Orca (Orcinus orca).
The other predator of Beluga is the Polar Bear, which often attacks groups of individuals that are trapped in ice.

The diet of the Beluga is mostly based on fish, but it also feeds on squids, crustaceans and other invertebrates.

Delphinapterus leucas is far from being an acrobatic whale. It never breaches, but often spyhops and lobtails.
It is sometimes hard to recognise it in icy waters or among whitecaps at rough sea, obviously because of its white colour.

In close encounters underwater, it is absolutely magnificient to observe the ability of the Beluga to change its facial expression by moving the melon and lips.
They are very gentle animals, curious and highly social.

Belugas are regularly found off the coasts of Scandinavia, Svalbard (Norway), former Soviet Union and North America.

A very anomalous population of a few hundred individuals inhabits the St.Lawrence and Saguenay North American rivers, whose waters are so polluted than dead Belugas must be removed and treated as toxic waste.
This is how much a heavy industrialisation and subsequent pollution can be taxing.

Toxic, fat-soluble organic compounds such as PCB (PolyChloroByphenyls), DDT (DichloroDiphenylTrichloroethane) and a chlorinated hydrocarbon called Mirex can work their way to freshwaters along with a broad spectrum of heavy metals (lead and mercury above all). These substances accumulate in the thick blubber of Belugas, causing a wide range of cancers and infections.

It is worth to point out that the incidence of such diseases in the above mentioned population is much higher than the average figures observed for Arctic Belugas, in complete accord with a higher level of contaminants found in their tissues (25 times higher for DDT e PCB, 100 times higher for Mirex and 2 to 15 times higher for heavy metals. Source: Whales on-line).