Adults are white except for the margins of flippers and tail flukes. There is no dorsal fin. The high, rounded forehead ends in a short, broad beak. Like the closely related NARWHAL, the neck vertebrae are not fused and belugas can turn their heads from side to side. Calves and juveniles are grey to blue, but otherwise resemble adults. Belugas have a remarkably varied vocal repertoire and have been called sea canaries. Their biosonar system, used for echolocation in navigation and foraging, is among the most sophisticated found in nature.
Belugas have long been hunted by northern residents for meat and oil, and by commercial whalers for hides and oil (see WHALE; WHALING). Today they are hunted by Inuit primarily for their skin (muktuk), a local delicacy. Belugas prey on various marine organisms and some fishermen have considered them serious competitors for SALMON and COD. During the 1930s an extermination program carried out in the St Lawrence River by the Québec government included payment of a bounty for each marsouin blanc (beluga) killed. Today, the St Lawrence population persists but in numbers considerably smaller than historically, and the same applies to those in Cumberland Sound and eastern Hudson Bay. The stock that formerly congregated in river mouths of southern Ungava Bay is either exterminated or nearly so.
St Lawrence belugas in and around the Rivière Saguenay confluence are the objects of a thriving whale watching industry. Belugas have also become popular display animals in oceanaria around the world. In Canada, they have been displayed for many years in Vancouver Aquarium and Marineland (in Niagara Falls). In the past, many of the belugas in captivity were caught in western Hudson Bay, but since Canada banned the practice, the growing world demand has been supplied by Russia.
Author R. REEVES AND E.D. MITCHELL
Links to Other Sites
Canadian Biodiversity Website
A great information source for all budding biologists. Learn about biodiversity theory, natural history, and conservation issues. From McGill’s Redpath Museum.
Climate change blamed for rising mercury levels in whales
A CBC News article about evidence of rising mercury levels in whales.
Oceans North Canada
This website examines conservation strategies that address the impact of climate change in the Arctic. Programs include identification of marine conservation areas, land claims agreements, fisheries management plans, ecosystem studies, and related initiatives. Features maps and striking photographs of local landscapes.