Cetaceans have captured the hearts of humans for ages, but none elicit quite as giddy of a reaction as does the beluga whale. Recognized instantly for its all-white or light grey coloring and oddly shaped head, the beluga whale belongs to the suborder of toothed whales, which includes dolphins and sperm whales. Despite being part of such a large group of cetaceans, the beluga shares its family lineage with only one other bizarre ocean mammal: the narwhal. Because of its distinct communication squeals, squeaks, whistles, and clucking, the beluga has also come to be known by the moniker “sea canary.”
Belugas, like dolphins, have a long history of interaction with humans, many of which have involved lifesaving actions. In 2008, a Japanese researcher at the Kamogawa Sea World outside of Japan reported that he had taught a resident beluga to “talk,” that is, to communicate effectively with humans. The scientist recorded specific sounds of the beluga’s “vocabulary” and trained it to associate certain objects with a particular sound that he would play back to the whale, meeting with great success. This scientist’s research not only demonstrates the beluga’s aptitude for learning, but opens the door for possible communication with cetaceans in the future.
The physical makeup of the beluga whale is markedly different from that of any other cetacean. Although the bulbous protrusion on its head, known as a melon, is something all toothed whales have in common, the melon of the beluga whale is larger and spongier than any other, even malleable by the whale through blowing air around its sinuses. It is thought to be used for echolocation, though its exact purpose is unknown. In addition, the vertebrae in its neck are not fused, allowing the beluga to turn its head from right to left, resulting in the somewhat personified movements witnessed by captive individuals. Instead of a dorsal fin, the beluga whale has a dorsal ridge, believed to be an environmental adaptation to the sub-ice conditions it frequently inhabits.
Beluga whales are a migratory species, summering in shallow estuarine areas, bays, and inlets in sub-Arctic regions, and moving north to the Arctic for the winter. Many belugas stay under the ice pack throughout the winter, surfacing when they find patches of open water in the ice. This surfacing behavior can lead to an untimely demise, however, as polar bears have been known to detect when the belugas are trapped under the ice with only the ice hole to breathe from, taking giant swipes and dragging them out onto the ice. Being slow swimmers, they are often vulnerable to predation by Orca whales and humans.
Although the capture of beluga whales in the wild for captivity is banned in Canada and the US, they are still commonly caught in Russia for local and foreign aquariums. The global population of beluga whales is around 100,000, but specific populations are considered to be varying levels of endangered. A population of Alaska’s Cook Inlet is protected under the US Endangered Species Act, with a survey population of approximately 375 members. However, it is difficult to know the exact population of beluga whales, as their habitats include inland waters as well as open ocean.