Beluga Whale

Beluga whales can be found in the Arctic and subarctic regions of Russia, Greenland, and North America. They inhabit the Arctic Ocean and its adjoining seas, including the Sea of Okhotsk, the Bering Sea, the Gulf of Alaska, the Beaufort Sea, Baffin Bay, Hudson Bay, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Five different populations of belugas, located in Cook Inlet, Bristol Bay, Eastern Bering Sea, Eastern Chukchi Sea, and Beaufort Sea, can be found in the United States. The Cook Inlet population is designated as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The remaining populations are considered stable or have not exhibited a decreasing trend in numbers (NOAA Office of Protected Resources).

These white whales are often referred to as “sea canaries” because their high pitched whistles, squeals, and chirps sound like those of a bird. Unlike other whales, belugas have a flexible neck which allows them to turn their head in all directions, and can swim backwards. Beluga whales are very social animals that congregate in social groups of 2-25 individuals when they migrate during the summer.

The greatest threats affecting the beluga whale are human related and include pollution from industrial runoff and a reduction in prey foods due to global climate disruption. Since the 1980’s, the population of belugas in Cook Inlet, Alaska has dropped from over 1,000 to less than 375 individuals. The remaining populations total about 10,000 individuals however less than 10 years ago there were over 64,000!

The Marine Mammal Taxon Advisory Group and the Beluga Whale Animal Program manage more than 35 whales at 9 AZA-accredited aquariums that are committed to educating the public about the affects of climate disruption on arctic species. AZA-accredited aquariums are also engaged in assisted reproductive methods including artificial insemination (AI), which are integral component of AZA cooperative breeding and management programs for beluga whales. AZA biologists and field researchers are involved in the study of beluga migration distances and patterns to help determine if additional protected areas needed to effectively protect the in situ populations.

Beluga Whale Facts

Status Endangered in Cook Inlet 
Size Belugas are 13 to 20 feet long and weigh 2,000 to 3,000 pounds.
Appearance Adult beluga whales are completely white. Their head is rounded with a prominent melon and a short broad beak. They do not have a dorsal fin.
Habitat They live in shallow coastal waters of the icy Arctic Ocean and its neighboring seas, and during the summer many pods may congregate in warmer freshwater estuaries and river basins.
Diet Beluga whales feed on fish, crustaceans, and worms.
Breeding Beluga whales mate in the spring and early summer, prior to their summer migration. The gestation period is 14 months.