We’re taking action to protect the beluga whale
Details: Through the help of kids just like you, Earth Rangers and the Churchill Northern Studies Centre are protecting the beluga whale. The donations raised for this Bring Back the Wild™ project are helping to:
- Purchase special underwater recorders to assess the effect of shipping traffic noise on beluga whale communication, detection of predators and their ability to find food and raise young
- Support beluga whale conservation research and help scientists study how environmental changes, like contaminants, affect beluga whales
Don’t miss the opportunity to have your donation doubled! The W. Garfield Weston Foundation will generously match all donations made to the beluga whale project up to $100,000.
A message from researcher Dr. Steve Ferguson…
“Many beluga whale populations in Canada’s Arctic are declining due to several threats. Belugas are very social and vocal, and one theory is that things in the environment that affect their ability to communicate properly through echolocation may cause them harm. I am very pleased to be partnering with Earth Rangers to study this fascinating whale and help Bring Back the Wild in Canada’s North.”
Check out the latest updates about beluga whales!
- Male beluga whales can weigh up to 1,600 kg (3,528 lbs) and are instantly recognizable by their bright white colour and melon shaped heads
- Belugas live throughout the Arctic Ocean
- Through the use of echolocation, beluga whales are able to find food and explore their surroundings
- Unlike baleen whales belugas have teeth and like to snack on fish and invertebrates
- Newborn calves are grey, they measure 1.5 m (5 ft) and weigh 80 kg (180 lbs)
- Near Threatened (IUCN) and Endangered/Threatened for most populations in Canada (COSEWIC). Climate change, increased shipping traffic and water pollution are the main threats affecting their population.
Beluga whales are instantly recognizable by their bright white skin and melon shaped heads. Adults measure about 5 m in length and can weigh up to 1,600 kg (3,528 lbs). That might seem huge to you, but to put it into perspective, the blue whale – the world’s largest whale – can weigh up to 181,000 kg (400,000 lbs). When compared to other whales, it’s easy to see that belugas are on the smaller side.
Although they might be small, they still carry around a large amount of blubber on their bodies to keep warm in the chilly Arctic waters where they live. This blubber may account for up to 40% of the belugas’ total body mass!
As marine mammals, beluga whales need to take in air from the surface using a special structure on their backs called a blowhole. Just before surfacing, the beluga opens its blowhole and exhales, producing a spray of seawater. Once its back is above the surface, the beluga quickly takes a deep breath of fresh oxygenated air before using muscles to close the blowhole and slip back under water. Beluga whales are able to hold their breath under water for up to 15 minutes.
Beluga whales are the only species of cetacean (a taxonomic order that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises) that can move their head from side to side independent of their bodies. Unlike other cetacean species the beluga whale’s neck vertebrae are not fused together.
Beluga whales are found throughout the Arctic Ocean, as well as in the connecting seas and inlets in North America, Russia, Greenland and Scandinavia. While some beluga whales remain in more or less the same place year round, many populations are migratory. When belugas migrate is determined by sea ice conditions, access to food and mating. As temperatures warm up in the springtime, these belugas begin to gather together and travel in large groups (“pods”) to shallower coastal waters, as well as places called estuaries, where large rivers open out into the ocean. Habitat preferences are different depending on the beluga population. For example, the Western Hudson Bay population lives in Hudson Bay for the summer and migrates in pods of up to 200 individuals eastward through the Hudson Strait to spend the winter near the entrance to the Labrador Sea region of the Arctic Ocean.
Belugas are thought to migrate to warm, shallow and ice-free waters for a number of reasons. For example, they may be seeking out places with a greater supply of food or warmer temperatures for breeding, nursing and raising their young. Belugas have also been seen using the rocky bottoms of river estuaries during moulting. Belugas rub their bodies against rough patches of stone and gravel to remove old layers of skin that have built up over the year, making it easier for new skin to form.
Starting in mid-August the migratory belugas begin their journey back to their wintering areas. During the fall and winter months some beluga populations prefer areas with relatively light, mobile ice cover while others head for deeper waters with more dense ice sheets. Western Hudson Bay belugas spend the winter near the Labrador Sea in areas with dense, slow-moving ice. In fact, in this region about 90% of the water is covered by ice. Belugas may seek different habitats to avoid favoured hunting grounds of their primary predators, polar bears and killer whales. While the vast majority of beluga whales are Arctic species, there is one population that lives year round in the St. Lawrence Estuary at the southernmost limit of the species’ range.
Like most whales and dolphins, belugas use sound to communicate with other members of their group, to explore their surroundings and find food. These whales are particularly talented vocalists, capable of making a wide number of sounds and calls, earning them the nickname “canaries of the sea”. The secret lies in the bump on their foreheads. Inside the bump is a special structure called a “melon” which helps to direct sound waves. These sound waves bounce off objects in the water and get sent back to the beluga as echoes, which help them find things in their environment. Echolocation comes in very handy when the belugas are hunting for fish or invertebrates like crabs in very deep or murky water, for finding breathing holes in ice sheets or detecting predators.
Another physical feature that helps the beluga in its habitat is the colour of its skin. Their snowy white colouring helps them blend in with the ice floating in the water so they can better avoid predators.
Beluga whales also show an attachment to their summering areas. Some pods will return to the same spot year after year to mate, even when it is dangerous for them. Unfortunately, by having such a predictable movement pattern during the summer it’s easier for people to find and hunt them.
Belugas belong to a group of cetaceans known as toothed whales. Having teeth separates belugas from baleen whales, a group which includes larger filter-feeder whales like humpback, gray and blue whales.
Since belugas have teeth they can eat larger prey than their baleen (filter-feeding) cousins. Food varies with season but generally includes fish like capelin, Arctic cod and herring, as well as invertebrates such as shrimp, squid and marine worms. Arctic cod is especially important during the fall when belugas need to develop thick blubber to survive the wintery cold Arctic waters.
Belugas require a lot of food to satisfy their nutritional demands. In captivity, belugas can eat about 15 kg of food a day! For belugas in the wild this means they spend a lot of time hunting underwater. Since they are mammals, belugas have special adaptations for breathing and for diving for extended periods of time before coming up to the surface. Belugas have twice as much blood as other land animals of similar size. In addition, their blood cells can hold 10 times more oxygen! These adaptations allow them to hold their breath for 15 minutes while diving.
For beluga whales, mating takes place around April and May. Females are ready to reproduce when they are 4-9 years old and males at 4-7 years old. The gestation period (pregnancy) lasts 12-14.5 months.
Newborn calves are about 1.5 m (5 ft) and weigh 80 kg (180 lbs). Although adult belugas are pure white, beluga calves are born a mottled grey or brown colour. The skin of calves begins to lighten in colour at about six years old and is completely white by about 13 years old – when the belugas are old enough to have families of their own.
Young belugas can swim beside their mothers at birth. Calves will nurse underwater approximately every hour for 1-2 years, on average, but start eating small fish and shrimp when they are about one year old and have small teeth.
Due to the long gestation and nursing period, female beluga whales only give birth to one calf every three years.
- Near Threatened (IUCN) and Endangered/Threatened for most populations in Canada (COSEWIC)
- Threatened by climate change, increased shipping traffic and water pollution
In Canada, six of the seven (86%) beluga whale populations are at risk of extinction. Many of these populations are threatened with issues specific to their regions, but there are a few challenges that all belugas in Canada face.
As it is for most Arctic species, climate change is a big threat for beluga whales. Greenhouse gases are building up in our planet’s atmosphere and global temperatures are on the rise. These warming temperatures are having big impacts on the Arctic Circle, where the amount of ice covering the Arctic Ocean is decreasing dramatically. As more ice melts, belugas are being forced to change their migration patterns and are finding it more difficult to seek out places that are safe from predators.
If areas of the Arctic Ocean become ice-free year round, scientists expect that industrial shipping traffic will keep increasing through many parts of the beluga whales’ range. Not only are belugas more likely to collide with these ships, but the noise pollution created by this boat traffic interferes with the beluga’s ability to communicate with each other and echolocate to find food.
Finally, many beluga whales are greatly affected by pollutants released into the water. Beluga whales consume a wide variety of fish and invertebrate prey, putting them at great risk of bioaccumulation. As the beluga whales consume more and more food contaminated with heavy metals like lead and mercury or with industrial chemicals like poly-aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), these toxins begin to collect, or accumulate, in the belugas’ fat stores. Accumulation of toxins in their fat tissue causes belugas to get sick. Beluga whales living in the St. Lawrence River are exposed to more pollutants than any other beluga population in Canada and are suspected to have a much higher rate of cancer than most other wild mammals.
It’s critical that we protect beluga whales from the threats they face in the wild, and that’s why Earth Rangers is on the job! Thousands of Earth Ranger kids are raising awareness and donations to support scientific research that will help us figure out the best ways to protect beluga whales in a changing arctic environment. Working with the Western Hudson Bay population of beluga whales, our conservation partner will be using acoustic recorders near Baffin Island to study the levels of noise in the Hudson Bay ecosystem. This data will allow researchers to predict how increased noise from boats may affect the belugas’ ability to echolocate and avoid predators, as well as help us understand where and why belugas travel to particular locations throughout the year, information that will allow us to better protect these spots. We will also be supporting research to understand how contaminants in the water affect beluga health.
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