Do you remember that annoyingly dramatic big-headed white whale from Finding Dory, suffering from a head injury and apparently unable to use his sonar skills? That’s Bailey, the Beluga whale! And yes, just like dolphins, a Beluga’s superpower is echolocation!
You’ve probably seen these charming, snow-white creatures in various documentaries and animated films, always with a wide grin plastered across their face. Come on, let’s introduce you to this not-so-scary-looking whale with cute teeth. Today, we’re going on a fun ride to get to know some of the most surprising Beluga whale facts.
Let’s start with their family surnames, shall we? Beluga whales (scientific name: Delphinapterus leucas) are medium-sized toothed whales belonging to the family Monodontidae. The Narwhals are their closest relatives! The average Beluga whale life cycle is around 40 years.
Beluga whales usually swim around in the Arctic Ocean and the subarctic waters surrounding Canada, Alaska, Scandinavia, Greenland, and Russia. Yes, they really are big fans of the cold!
These mammals are super-friendly, social amongst themselves, and even interact with humans. So, do you want to learn a few more cool Beluga whale facts? Let’s jump in, shall we?
A stash of Beluga nicknames
Trust us when we say Beluga whales have more nicknames than an Asian kid! The name “Beluga” or “belukha” originates from the Russian word “bielo” which means white.
They are nicknamed “sea canaries” because they’re a pretty noisy bunch of animals! And remember their huge globular heads? They have a nickname specifically for their heads – melonheads. Cute, right?
The mysterious talent of the Melonheads
You might have heard of dolphins using their sonar skills to spy on enemies. Similarly, toothed whales like our Belugas also use echoes of their noises to locate and identify creatures or objects in the oceans. And here lies the power of the wiggly, squishy melon!
You see, the melon is a small and round fatty organ situated on the top of their bulbous heads. When the whales make sounds, air rushes in and moves out of their sinuses. As a result, the melon in front of the blowhole inflates and deflates throughout the process.
Because of their flexible melons, Beluga whales have quite a few party tricks up their sleeve! They communicate with a broad range of sounds, ranging from whistles, squeals, chirps, bleats, mews, and clicks. No wonder they’re known as sea canaries!
A Beluga’s brilliant brain is not inside its Melon
Now that you know that the melon is a completely different organ, let’s hope you won’t fall prey to stupid TikTok comments. The Beluga whale brain is safely tucked inside their skull.
Moreover, Beluga brains are quite super-sized! An average human brain weighs around 2.75 pounds. In comparison, our Beluga friends have brains weighing almost 5 pounds!
One of the surprising Beluga whale facts is that their neocortex has even more folds than the human brain. More brain folds signify a bigger surface area. This neocortex is responsible for analytical functioning like complex thoughts, reasoning, self-awareness, and perception.
Now, you must be wondering: Are Belugas more intelligent than us? We only know that their brains process sounds and visuals differently and faster than we do. Now, if only we could accurately measure their IQ!
What we do know is that their immense brain power aids in learning a lot about their environment and sustaining good memories for their survival. It also helps them in complex communication through a plethora of sounds.
Beluga whale: The pro mimicker!
We know that dolphins are taught to mimic human sounds. However, no animal can produce these sounds spontaneously.
But hold your breath because we’re about to hit you with one of the most shocking Beluga whale facts. A nine-year-old baby Beluga whale named NOC was able to mimic human sounds! Okay, you can exhale now.
Unfortunately, NOC lived its whole life in captivity, working for the US Navy. Its garbled sounds imitated the human voice so well that it convinced a diver to get out of the water. You can read all about this incredible story here!
Warmer waters call for a Summer Makeover!
Every summer, you can spot the Beluga whale migration in large pods towards Greenland and Norway’s shallow, southern coastal waters. And this is where the magic happens!
During the warmer months, you can trust the Belugas to show the little trick up their sleeves- or, well, their skin. Before they shed their old outer layer of skin, they rub themselves against the coarse gravel in the freshwater near the estuaries. And voila, the new summer look has arrived! Natural exfoliation at its best, isn’t it?
Their Pearly White skin is a Camouflage!
Another one of the astonishing Beluga whale facts is that these snow-white babies are not born white. Fresh out of the womb, they have dark gray skin! And they have to be patient for eight long years to transform into the pearly white skin they’re commonly identified with. So much for that glazed milky white makeover, huh?
This transformation is not just about looking ethereal; it’s about surviving in those frosty polar waters and tricking predators by blending in with the Arctic sea ice.
Beluga Calves are clingy babies, even before they’re born!
You can’t imagine how clingy a Beluga whale baby can be! Imagine being pregnant for 15 months – yes, you read that right! That’s how long the gestation period runs for Beluga mamas. Queens of patience, aren’t they?
And after all that, the moms continue to nurse their calves for at least 2 years. Talk about some heavy-duty parenting!
But don’t be alarmed! Because of that long, demanding process, these ladies are in no hurry to pop out babies every year.
Here’s the kicker: Beluga Whales give birth in warmer waters because why not make it cozier and warmer for the little ones? This is also to compensate for the newborns’ lack of extra fat. The lengths these wonderful mothers go to care for their little munchkins is inspiring!
Belugas love a Big, Fat Lunch
Beluga whales are cute, fun, and intelligent, and on top of that, they’re huge foodies! We’re already besties with them, right? Let’s check out what’s on the Beluga whale food menu, shall we?
Seafood is their staple for obvious reasons. They usually feed on big servings of fish, squids, worms, and crustaceans. On an average day, Beluga whales eat up to 60 pounds of seafood. And despite having teeth, they don’t chew their food at all. They just swallow it whole. Well, at least they don’t have to brush their teeth or fight cavities!
Their Boogers are Worthy of Research!
Are you ready for our next Beluga whale fun fact? Well, this one might be a bit on the unusual side. Believe it or not, Beluga whale boogers (yes, we repeat, BOOGERS!) are used by marine scientists for research purposes! You’ve seen this a million times. Whenever whales come up to the surface to breathe, they blow their nose. Beluga whales are no exception.
They release a fountain of “snot,” which contains thousands of tiny droplets of respiratory vapor. And this “blow” or “snot” is used to study their stress levels, reproduction, genetics, diseases, and the nature of their microbiome. Aren’t the possibilities of scientific shenanigans outright mind-boggling?
Slow Swimmers but Strong Divers!
Another Beluga whale summer hotspot is the Canadian Hudson Bay. You may even spot the annual Beluga whale migration during your next trip to Canada during summer. These slow yet steady swimmers travel thousands of kilometers to reach the warmer waters to feed, reproduce, and basically fool around!
Even though they’re quite slow swimmers (maximum speed is 22 km/hr), don’t underestimate their aquatic skills! They can dive up to 800 meters underwater and last up to 25 minutes! They also have an excellent backstroke and can basically explore the whole Arctic ocean on their backs.
Arctic Survival Guide 101: Beluga Style
If you want to learn how to thrive in the wide, wild Arctic, look no further! Let the Belugas teach you their methods. There are quite a few Beluga whale adaptation strategies to help them survive in the polar waters of the Arctic.
Beluga whales don’t have a dorsal fin to reduce extra heat loss. The lack of a dorsal fin also helps them to swim beneath sheets of ice.
Instead, they have a strong dorsal ridge to break up layers of ice. Further, they sport a thick insulating layer of fat called blubber to protect themselves from the cold. You’d be surprised to know that almost 40% of the whale’s body weight is due to the blubber.
Unlike other whales and dolphins, the neck vertebrae of the Beluga are not joined together. Even with that bulky body, their flexibility is off the charts! Combine that with their ultimate diving skills, and you’d get why catching prey in the icy waters is a cakewalk for Beluga!
Beluga influencers: Overweight and Body-positive
Belugas are one of the smallest members of the whale family. But don’t underestimate them just because of their size! A healthy adult male can be 13 to 20 feet in length and weigh up to 1.5 tons.
Beluga whales have a lot of fat stored in their body for extra coziness in the Arctic cold. Belugas, you see, are a bit on the heavier side. Almost half of their body weight is just fat! But don’t worry, they rock those extra kilos with great pride and still end up looking the cutest!
Beluga Whale: Predator but also Prey!
So far, we’ve led you to believe that the Beluga life is all sunshine and seafood! It’s not difficult to imagine that they might spend their days frolicking around in pods in the Arctic waters with lots of seafood for lunch.
But here lies the plot twist – one of the more terrifying Beluga whale facts:
Even the Beluga have their fair share of problems and predators. These adorable creatures serve as delicious meals for Polar Bears and Killer Whales. It’s a tough life out there, even for the cutest whales!
Beluga caviar is actually not from Beluga whales!
Okay, now lean in for a secret. Many people equate the Beluga whale with Beluga caviar, one of the most expensive and highly sought-after food products in the world. Well, Beluga caviar has nothing to do with our Beluga whale friends here! Beluga caviar is actually sourced from sturgeon fish.
In fact, Beluga whales are mammals and don’t produce caviar. And sturgeon fish are summer babies, mostly found in the Caspian Sea! Very far away from the polar waters that are home to the Beluga whales.
Threats to Beluga whales’ survival
Believe it or not, Beluga whales are the most commonly captured animals for human entertainment. There are around 300 captive Belugas in aquatic and marine parks in countries like Canada, the US, Ukraine, China, Japan, and Russia. Beluga death rates are even higher among these captives.
It’s not just captivity that threatens our Beluga friends; they face a bunch of challenges arising due to our actions. Energy exploration activities, port development, increased maritime traffic, and noise pollution are just some of the things that wreak havoc on their homes.
Moreover, toxic contaminants from oil spills and industrial discharges may adversely affect their immune and reproductive systems, thereby affecting Beluga whale behavior. Overfishing and stranding also make life even more difficult for these unique creatures of the ocean.
Taking Action to Protect the Belugas
One of the more painful Beluga whale facts is that while these lovely creatures aren’t officially declared endangered, they’re not far behind from being listed in that category. They’re already up on the IUCN List under the near-threatened, which is rising.
But don’t lose hope, at least not yet. The NOAA has come up with the “Marine wildlife viewing guidelines” for safe whale watching for its protection.
Beluga whales are also currently listed in the CITES Appendix II. West Greenland has placed harvest quotes and reduced harvests to increase the Beluga population.
Today, the biggest danger to the Belugas is climate change. Increasing ocean temperatures and decreasing sea ice will eventually lead to nutritional stress and affect their life cycles. So, please spare a thought about these amazing children of the ocean, and let’s all come together to protect our big, beautiful Belugas!