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Beluga Whale: Characteristics, Diet, Facts & More [Fact Sheet]

Welcome to the fascinating world of beluga whales, the charming “canaries of the sea” known for their vocalizations and sociability. This article serves as a comprehensive fact sheet on beluga whales, delving into their physical characteristics, behaviors, and ecological importance.

Whether you are a casual reader or a budding marine biologist, this fact sheet is packed with intriguing information about these magnificent marine mammals.

The Beluga Whale at a Glance


Class:Mammalia (Mammals)
Species:D. leucas

Essential Information

Average Size:13-20 feet (4-6 meters)
Average Weight:2,000-3,000 pounds (900-1,400 kg)
Average Lifespan:35-50 years
Geographical Range:Arctic and subarctic regions
Conservation Status:Least Concern (IUCN Red List)

Species and Subspecies

There is only one species of beluga whale, known scientifically as Delphinapterus leucas. However, there are different populations which, while not classified as subspecies, can vary slightly in size, color, and behavior.

These populations are often categorized based on the regions they inhabit, such as the Cook Inlet population in Alaska or the St. Lawrence Estuary population in Canada.

Two beluga whales


Beluga whales are best recognized for their stark white color, which is not present at birth but develops as they age. Juvenile belugas are gray and progressively lighten as they mature. They possess a rounded forehead known as a “melon,” which is flexible and changes shape when the whale vocalizes.

Belugas have no dorsal fin, which is an adaptation for living in icy waters, allowing them to swim easily under the ice. Instead, they have a dorsal ridge, which can be used to break ice. Sexual dimorphism is subtle, with males being slightly larger and possessing a more prominent melon compared to females.

Their bodies are robust and muscular, with a broad tail fin. Their adaptability to cold environments is evident in their thick layer of blubber, which can be as thick as 5 inches (12.7 cm) and contributes significantly to their weight. The blubber not only provides insulation but also stores energy and aids in buoyancy.

Habitat and Distribution

Beluga whales predominantly reside in the cold waters of the Arctic and subarctic regions. They are often found in the coastal areas of Russia, Greenland, and North America, especially in areas characterized by shallow bays, estuaries, and inlets.

They are highly adapted to life in cold seas and are one of the few whale species that can tolerate riverine environments. During summer, when sea ice melts, they migrate to warmer estuaries and bays. As winter approaches and the sea ice starts forming, they move out to open waters, avoiding getting trapped in the ice.

Beluga whale face


Belugas are often considered the most vocal of all cetaceans, leading to their nickname, “canaries of the sea.” They produce a diverse array of sounds ranging from clicks, whistles, and clangs, which play a vital role in communication, echolocation, and navigation.

Unlike many other cetaceans, belugas are diurnal, showing distinct patterns of activity during daylight hours. Their social structure is fluid. They can be observed in small groups, known as pods, which might consist of 2-25 individuals, primarily formed based on age and sex. However, during migrations, they can form larger aggregations that number in the hundreds or even thousands.

One intriguing aspect of their behavior is their affinity for shedding skin. In summer, they are known to rub their bodies on gravelly river bottoms, which aids in molting.

Diet and Feeding Behavior

Beluga whales are opportunistic feeders and have a varied diet. They are primarily carnivorous and feed on a wide array of marine life. Their diet includes fish species like salmon, herring, and cod, as well as invertebrates such as squid, crabs, and various kinds of shellfish.

They have well-adapted teeth, not for chewing but for grabbing and holding prey. Once captured, they swallow the prey whole. Their hunting strategy involves diving deep to find food, and they can dive for up to 20 minutes, reaching depths of about 1,000 feet (305 meters). However, most of their feeding dives last only about 3-5 minutes.


While adult beluga whales have few natural predators, the young calves can fall prey to a variety of Arctic marine predators. The primary threat to belugas comes from polar bears and killer whales (orcas).

Polar bears, adept swimmers, occasionally target young belugas near the water’s edge or trapped by sea ice. Killer whales, on the other hand, are known to chase and prey on belugas, especially during migrations.

Humans also pose a significant threat to belugas, not as direct predators, but through activities like hunting, shipping, and environmental pollution, which we will explore further in the conservation section.

Beluga whale in aquarium

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Beluga whales are known to have intricate and long courtship behaviors, often involving songs and physical displays. Females reach sexual maturity at around 8 years of age, while males typically mature a few years later, around 12 to 14 years.

Once pregnant, female belugas have a gestation period lasting approximately 14 to 15 months, after which they give birth to a single calf, though twins are rare but possible. Newborn calves are dark gray in color and measure about 5 feet (1.5 meters) in length and weigh around 100–140 pounds (45–64 kg). They are gray at birth and will gradually turn white as they mature.

Mother belugas are attentive, nursing the calves with high-fat milk for at least two years. After birth, both mother and calf join a nursery pod, which is a subgroup of the larger pod, consisting mainly of other mothers and their young. The calf learns essential life skills like hunting and social interaction in this setting before it becomes independent at around five years old.

Conservation and Threats

As of now, the conservation status of beluga whales is classified as “Least Concern” according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). However, this should not be mistaken for a lack of threats.

Belugas face challenges such as habitat loss due to climate change, pollution, noise disturbance from marine traffic, and accidental capture in fishing nets.

Various efforts are underway to monitor and protect beluga populations, including marine protected areas, restrictions on hunting, and public awareness campaigns.

Fun Facts

  1. Color Change: Unlike many other marine mammals, belugas change color as they age. They are born dark gray and gradually turn white by the age of six.
  2. No Dorsal Fin: Belugas lack a dorsal fin, which is believed to be an adaptation to live under ice. This absence allows them to swim just below the ice surface.
  3. Musical Marvels: Beluga whales are often called “canaries of the sea” because of their wide range of vocalizations.
  4. Deep Divers: While they usually prefer shallow waters, belugas can dive up to 2,300 feet (700 meters) deep.
  5. Social Butterflies: Belugas display strong social bonds and have even been observed to adopt orphaned calves.
  6. Smiling Faces: The unique structure of a beluga’s jaw gives it the appearance of smiling, which adds to their overall charm and playfulness.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why are beluga whales white?

Beluga whales turn white as they mature, which is believed to be an adaptation to their Arctic environment. The white coloration helps them blend into the icy surroundings, offering camouflage against potential predators.

Do beluga whales have good hearing?

Yes, belugas have an exceptional sense of hearing. Their echolocation abilities are among the best of all cetaceans, allowing them to navigate and hunt in the often murky Arctic waters.

How do beluga whales stay warm in icy waters?

Beluga whales have a thick layer of blubber that insulates them from the cold Arctic temperatures. This blubber can be up to 4 inches (10 cm) thick.

Are beluga whales related to dolphins?

Beluga whales and dolphins both belong to the cetacean family, making them distant relatives. However, they belong to different families within this order, with belugas being more closely related to narwhals.

What’s the lifespan of a beluga whale?

In the wild, beluga whales typically live for 35-50 years, though some individuals have been known to live up to 70 years in captivity.

Do beluga whales have teeth?

Yes, they have teeth but they do not chew their food. They use their teeth to grab prey and then swallow it whole.

Can beluga whales be kept in captivity?

While it’s technically possible, keeping belugas in captivity is subject to ethical and conservation debates. Small enclosures and unnatural living conditions can stress the animals and shorten their lifespan.

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