The whale is sometimes referred to as the “white whale” due to its unusual coloring. Other names it goes by include “sea canary” due to the high-pitched calls it is known for and “melonhead.” 
Scientists believe that beluga whales can live to be around thirty years of age but not much older. This is calculated based on the layers of dental cement in the whale’s teeth when it passes away. 

Appearance 

The beluga whale is distinguished by its all-white appearance. Unlike most whales, they do not have a dorsal fin. This allows them to swim more easily under the ice and closer to the surface. Their heads feature a protuberance that holds a special organ, called a melon, that allows them to use echolocation. The whale can grow to around eighteen feet in length and can weigh around 3,530 pounds. Their bodies are often described as dense and stocky. Around 40-50% of their body weight is fat, a far higher percentage than that within non-Arctic whales.

Beluga whale above water
Beluga whale above water

Males are around 25% larger than females, and as Convention on Migratory Species describes, “sturdier.” They reach their maximum size around ten years of age.

A beluga whale skeleton
A beluga whale skeleton

Credit: Christian Michelides


Do Beluga Whale have Knees?

Although it appears that beluga whales have knees, this is in fact false. In some pictures, it appears as if beluga whales have knees. This has commonly made people mistaken them for mermaids at sea.

It can sometimes appear beluga whales have knees

Credit: Javier Yaya Tur (CAC, S. A.)

However, what appears to be knees for beluga whales is just, in fact, blubber moving in the ocean, or their muscle. The way beluga whales swim can often cause their own blubber and/or muscle to look in such a way as to make it seem beluga whales have knees.


Habitat 

The beluga whale is most commonly found in the waters around the Arctic and sub-Arctic. During the summer, it can be found around the coast of Alaska, northern California, Greenland, and northern Russia. Their habitat only extends as far south as areas around the Shantar Islands and the Sea of Okhotsk.

The beluga whale is also known for its migratory patterns. These are patterns the animals inherit from their parents. Some travel as far as 3,700 miles a year. They spend the winter in the open sea alongside pack ice. They survive by coming to the surface and using polynyas (or areas of open water surrounded by sea ice) to breathe. 

These whales are most commonly spotted in shallow waters near the coast. But, reports suggest they also travel out into deeper water for extended periods of time. This is where the whales give birth and feed. It’s not uncommon to find these whales in coves, bays, and other shallow waters, like canals, around the Arctic Ocean

Diet 

Beluga whales are opportunist feeders. This means that their habits change depending on the season and their location. This is heightened by the fact that they are slow swimmers. But, they can dive to around 2,300 feet.  During one period of time, they might eat Arctic cod, rosefish, or Coho salmon. In other locations, they may feed on smelt, sole, herring, and types of salmon. Shrimp, octopus, sea snails, and bristle worms are also on the menu. 

Beluga whales spend the most time feeding during the winter season. This is when their blubber is the thickest. They do not, scientists believe, hunt while they are migrating. 

Reproduction 

beluga whale in an aquarium

Scientists are not entirely sure when beluga whales reach sexual maturity. Estimates suggest sometime between nine and fifteen for males and eight and fourteen for females. According to Scientific Reports, the average age that belugas first give birth is 8.5 years old. 

Females give birth to around one calf every three years, with the mating period occurring between February and May. Gestation lasts somewhere between 12 and 14.5 months. Calves remain with their mothers and are dependent on them for the first year of their lives. When their teeth appear, they start eating shrimp and small fish. They nurse until they are around twenty months old, according to Walker’s Mammals of the World. 

beluga whale in captivity
Beluga whale in captivity

Credit: Stan Shebs 


Threats 

Beluga whales face numerous threats. This includes hunting in the Arctic, Alaska, Greenland, and Russia by native peoples. This is done for both consumption and for profit. The whales are easy to hunt due to their predictable migratory patterns. Studies suggest that around 1,000 beluga whales are killed every year. 

Commercial whaling around the arctic ocean is also responsible for the low population numbers that Beluga whales suffer from today. This was at its height between the 18th and 19th centuries. They were hunted for their meat and blubber, and oil from their bodies was used as a lubricant for machinery, including clocks. 

Belugas are also threatened by pollution. This is especially dangerous due to the fact that they tend to live near shores, the areas most heavily influenced by runoff. Heavy metals like DDT and lead have been found in populations of beluga whales. 

Facts about Beluga Whales 

  • Beluga whales form groups of ten on average. 
  • They are slow swimmers. 
  • They can dive to around 2,300 feet. 
  • Most belugas live in the Arctic Ocean. 
  • Native peoples in North America and Russia still hunt beluga whales. 
  • The beluga whale was listed as “near threatened” by the IUCN in 2008. 
  • They are the most commonly kept when in captivity. 


FAQs 

Are beluga whales friendly?

Yes, they are described as extremely friendly. They travel in groups and have been known to interact with humans. 

Are beluga whales aggressive?

They have the capacity to be aggressive as all species of whales do. This allows them to defend themselves, hunt, and protect their young.

Do belugas eat humans?

No, beluga whales do not eat humans. They are far more interested in small fish, shrimp, and sea snails. Rarely, they’ll eat something larger. 

How smart are belugas?

Beluga whales are considered to be extremely intelligent. They are easily trainable, scientists suggest, and remain calm in stressful situations. There are some suggestions that countries have attempted to train beluga whales as spies.