Name: Beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas)
Length : 4.5 - 5.5 m (males)
Weight: up to 1,500 kg (males)
Females are slightly smaller than males
Status: Near Threatened
Gliding through the icy waters, these ephemeral creatures move with a grace and beauty which stands out as much as their snow-white skin. Inquisitive and intelligent, the beluga whales may be a common sight on an Arctic voyage but a close encounter with them is sure to leave you lost for words.
Diet: The beluga is a 'toothed' whale and hunts a wide range of crustaceans, squid and fish species. Cod are thought to represent an important part of their diet. Feeding dives can range from 2 - 20 minutes long.
Habitat: Beluga whales are often found in or near to fjords and can often be seen close to glacier fronts. They are thought to spend their winters in areas where there is drift ice.
Biology: Beluga whales are highly social and spend most of their time in single-sex groups, usually around twenty in number. These groups remain close together, with 1000s of animals often moving together. Diving to depths of over 1000 m, beluga whales are thought to use a complex form of echolocation using ultrasound clicks for hunting food and communicating with one another. The acoustic organ at the front of the head (the melon) is highly advanced and is able to change shape due to control through the sinuses: this, along with the beluga's unique ability to twist and turn its head, via moveable vertebrae in the neck, permits its echolocation to be targeted and highly directional. Breeding occurs in April/May and after a gestation period of 14 months, a single calf is born, 150 cm in length, weighing approximately 80 kg. The calf remains with the mother for approximately two years.
Historical: There is a long history of hunting this social, slow-swimming whale around Svalbard, right up until the 1960s, when it became a protected species. Now, the population around Svalbard continues to increase.
Notes: The beluga is the only whale to have the distinctive pale colouration, making it hard to confuse with other species, although young beluga whales appear dark grey for their first few years. Polar bears and orca whales are the only natural predators of the beluga. Belugas are thought to live for around 40 years. The Scientific name translates as the wingless (-apterus) white (leucas) dolphin (Delphin-) because of the beluga's lack of a dorsal fin. Across its range, the beluga is often fondly referred to as the 'sea canary', due to its wide repertoire of clicks, whistles and calls.
Trivia: During the spring melts, belugas gather in large groups in the mouths of flat, shallow freshwater streams, where they clean themselves and rub off old skin and parasites against the stones.