The Beluga Whale is unique and beautiful, and is usually the last thing that comes to mind when the word "whale" is mentioned. This is unfortunate because there is much to be said for such an incredible animal.
Kingdom - Animalia
Phylum - Chordata
Class - Mammalia
Order - Cetacea
Family - Monodontidae
Genus - Delphinapterus
Species - Delphinapterus leucas
The beluga whale is an exclusively northern hemisphere species and can be found in the Arctic ocean as well as some adjoining seas. This Arctic water white beauty weighs in at an average of 3,300 pounds, 13 feet for males, and 3,000 pounds, 12 feet for females while living upwards of 35 years. At birth they are dark grey, blue-grey as juveniles and turn to completely white once an adult at 5 or 6 years of age. Beluga whales have a unique fusiform shaped body with a large "melon" on their heads. This melon is thought to be used to focus echolocation tones, but this in much debated. However, it is known that it can be used as a health indicator - lack of nourishment leads to a low flat melon while the better fed and nourished whale shows a strong, round melon. Inside the short beak, one can see 38-44 conical/spoon shaped teeth. Unusually, they have no dorsal fin, rather a narrow dorsal ridge along the back that is accentuated in the older males. They have broad, notched flukes with convex trailing edges, and spatulate flippers - the edges will curl with age.
Another thing that sets the belugas apart from other whales is their ability to move their neck. Since the seven vertebrae in their neck are not fused, it gives them the side-to-side motion needed to see predators coming and other things that most other whales would not see. This ability to see more of their surroundings is very helpful since they move slower than most other whales and animals that prey on them.
Belugas eat up to 100 known things with a much wider diet than most cetaceans. They'll munch on things that include many types of fish - herring, cod and salmon, as well invertebrates like squid, snails, crabs and octopus. These whales will eat about 2.5% to 3% of their body weight, or 50 pounds per day. The feeding period lasts about 3 to 15 minutes, and they usually dive at a depth of 20 meters. It is estimated that some can stay underwater for 20 minutes and can reach depths of 400 to 650 meters. This is where one more unique thing about them comes into play - the stomachs of belugas have been found to hold bottom-dwelling organisms. It has not been determined what the purpose or the origin of these organisms is, but it is currently being researched.
The Little Ones
The average gestation period for these bundles of joy is roughly 14 to 15 months. The mothers breed in warmer water and return to warmer waters to birth the young. The babies are born either head or tail first and swim to the surface within 10 seconds for their first breath with a little help from mom. These little ones are anything but little measuring 4 to 5 feet and weighing between 100 and 140 pounds - no wonder females only reproduce once every 2+ years! They sexually mature around the age of 7 to 9 years and breed in the spring. Lactation lasts from 1 to 2 years providing milk that is 28% fat for the young.
They are stable, with an estimated 57,000 in Alaska waters.
Other Interesting Facts
They are very social animals and are usually found in pods, or social groups of about 2 to 25 whales, the average pod size being 10. These pods migrate and hunt together, and may join other pods forming groups of anywhere from 200 to 10,000 belugas. When it comes to breathing, these whales have blowholes just like the other whales. In order to open the blowhole, it contracts the muscular flap that covers it and can spray up to 3 feet when surfacing. The easy-going attitude of these gorgeous whales is reflected in their swimming. Belugas are relatively slow swimmers and carry on at a normal speed of about 2 to 6 miles per hour. However, they are capable of reaching bursts of 14 miles per hour for roughly 15 minutes. In terms of predators, killer whales and polar bears are on the top of the list.
With the nickname "sea canaries", belugas are known for being extremely vocal. Surprisingly, most of their songs and chatter can even be heard above water. Belugas depend on echolocation to find things such as bottom-dwelling prey, breathing holes in Arctic ice sheets and to get around in deep, dark waters. Communication with other belugas come in the form of songs, but they also produce many other sounds ranging from squeals, clicks, whistles, ect.