Beluga facts: Beluga whales, sometimes called white whales, begin life colored light gray, then turn darker gray and become white as they mature. They are the only species of whale that is completely white. Beluga whales range in length from 13 to 16 feet (4 to 5 meters) and in weight from 1,500 to 3,500 pounds (700 to 1,600 kilograms). Males are about 25 percent larger than females.
Geographic range: These whales are found worldwide in the Arctic. Isolated populations also exist in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada, and in Cook Inlet, Alaska.
Beluga habitat: Belugas live in cold water of almost any depth. During the summer they gather in shallow water at the mouths of rivers. At other times, they migrate through deep, open ocean. They can survive in fresh water, and have been occasionally found in rivers far from the ocean.
What does beluga eat: Belugas eat a wide variety of squid, fish, crabs, shrimp, clams, worms, and octopus that they find by echolocation (eck-oh-loh-KAYshun). They can easily dive to depths of 3,300 feet (1,000 meters). Their teeth are not made for capturing prey. Instead, they suction food into their mouths and swallow it whole.
Behavior and reproduction: Belugas are some of the most playful whales. They have been seen swimming and playing either alone or with other whales with all kinds of floating objects. They live in pods of less than ten animals, but these pods often gather into large herds of hundreds of animals.
Belugas are the most vocal species of whale. Their voices are loud and varied. They make clicks, chirps, whistles, squawks, and other high-pitched sounds.
Mating occurs in early spring and a single calf is born about fourteen months later. During the summer, females gather in shallow waters at the mouths of rivers to give birth, probably because the water there is warmer than in the open ocean. Calves nurse for about two years. A new calf is normally born every three years. Belugas are thought to live between thirty-five and forty years in the wild.
Natural predators, animals that hunt them for food, of the beluga whale include killer whales and polar bears. Polar bears lie in wait at breathing holes in the ice and attack when the whale surfaces to take a breath.
Beluga whales and people: Belugas have been hunted commercially for food mainly by the Russians. They adapt well to captivity and are also captured for display in marine entertainment parks. Ecotourists visit the population in the St. Lawrence River to observe them in their natural environment.
Conservation status: Beluga whales are considered Vulnerable. Some populations, like the one at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River are coming under increasing pressure from chemical pollution, shipping, and the development of undersea oil and gas fields.