With a name derived from an old Russian word for ‘white’, these Arctic inhabitants are the only whales, not albino or leucistic, that are known to be completely white – the Beluga.
Living in social groups called pods, they communicate through a variety of sounds including squeaks, chirps and whistles, earning them the nickname – “sea canaries.”
At birth, belugas are about 5 feet (1.5 m) in length and weigh around 100 – 140 lbs. (45 – 64 kg) and are a dark grey color (which allows them to effectively hide in the shadow of their mothers). As they mature their skin lightens which may take up to 8 years to become completely white.
Adult belugas range between 13 and 20 feet (4- 6 m) in length and weigh up to 3,000 lbs. (1360 kg). They shed their outer layer of skin each summer.
Beluga whales lack a dorsal fin and instead have a dorsal ridge, a characteristic that reduces heat loss and allows them to swim more easily under vast ice sheets to find breathing holes at the surface.
In addition to their white coloration, another distinctive feature is the bulbous melon on the top of their head. This area is very flexible and is believed to aid in echo location to help navigate their surroundings and find food – which include as many as 100 species including: squid, octopus, crab and fish such as cod, herring and salmon.
Unlike most whales, belugas’ neck bones are unfused. This allows for greater flexibility and permits the belugas to actually move their heads up and down and side-to-side.