Belugas, the friendly whales!

The origin of the name "Beluga" is Russian. The nickname of this type of whale is the white whale, although two types of whales are falling in the same family, also called "Monodontidae". The second type of whale sharing the same family is the Narwhal.

The Beluga belongs to the order of Cetacea. Its genus is Delphinapterus and its specie's name is Delphinapterus leucas.

This whale specie has been described for the first time in 1776 by Peter Simon Palles. Years ago, the Beluga was considered to be related to the Irrawaddy dolphin but it was later proven that they do not share the same genetic information.

Like most species, males are larger and heavier than females. The length of an adult male Beluga can measure up to 5 m or 16 feet while females are usually smaller. As for the weight, a full size male can weight up to 1,360 kg or 3,000 lbs while females will weight up to 900 kg or 1 ton.

At birth, a calf will reach up to 1.5 m or 5 feet in length and weight 80 kg or 176 lbs. The newborn calf is actually grey in color and will reach its well-known pure white color gradually, as it grows older. In fact, the female will turn this color at 7 years old while males will reach it at 9 years old.

Females will reach its sexual maturity and be able to reproduce at the age of 5 years old while males will reach it at 8 years of age. Females as old as 20 years old have been known to give birth. The average gestational period is 15 months although it ranges from 14.5 months into the wild up to 17 months in captivity. The nursing of the calf averages 2 years in length.

The mating period usually occurs in winter or spring but has also been known to happen at other times during the year. Females usually give birth to one calf in the spring.

The Beluga is also known as the Sea Canary as it communicates with a wide range of sounds such as high-pitched squeaks, squeals and whistles. A variety of 50 different sounds have been observed, ranging from 0.1 up to 12 kHz.

The Conservation Status of the Beluga although it is considered to be vulnerable, it does not belong on the list of endangered species of whales.

In size, the Beluga is larger than most dolphins but is considered to be smaller than most toothed whales. This toothed whale has no dorsal fin but rather a dorsal ridge which experts say is an adaptation to under-ice conditions or may also be a way to preserve heat better.

Its melon, which is used for the purpose of echolocation, is very bulbous and malleable. In fact, the Beluga is able to change its shape simply by blowing air around its sinuses.

Another peculiar natural feature that offers the Beluga a different perspective on things is the flexibility of its head as its cervical vertebrae is not fused, allowing this marine mammal to move its head laterally, unlike other whales and dolphins.

Like other cetaceans, its thyroid gland is large in comparison to mammals living on land. Experts believe that such a natural fact allows whales to sustain a higher metabolism in order to adapt to summer estuarine conditions.

When well-fed, Belugas appear to be more plumb, especially near its tail and its head. Its flippers are almost square-shaped as they are shorter and broader than other whales.

Belugas have been known to live mostly in Arctic and Sub- Arctic waters located between 50N and 80N. Some members of their population can also be seen from late spring until late fall in the St. Lawrence River estuary near Tadoussac, Quebec. When this region becomes covered in ice, they move up North. Another population lives in the Cook Inlet, Alaska.

Both these regions are considered to be their summer grounds. Experts are amazed by the ability of the Beluga to locate open water patches more than 95% of the time simply by using echolocation. Belugas are also known to use the air pockets trapped underneath the ice to take a breath.

Belugas are well-known as very sociable creatures, which explain why they travel in large pods. While males tend to travel in pods containing up to hundreds of members, females and calves usually travel in smaller pods. When pods meet in the estuary, thousands of individuals can be counted at one time. Unfortunately, such large pods also make them vulnerable to hunters.

Belugas' membership tends to be unstable as they often move from one pod to the next on a regular basis. The most important relationship that exists in pods is the one linking a mother to its calf. In fact, the calf will usually migrate to the same migration region visited by its mother, which often causes them to meet there every summer.

Belugas are playful marine mammals. They are also know to spit at humans and other whales although it is believed to be a technique used to blow away sand from crustaceans on the ocean floor, allowing them to catch them more easily.

The Beluga's diet is mainly composed of fish but they also feed on squid, octopus, crab and shrimp. During feeding dives, they are known to dive down to 1,000 feet during a period ranging from 3 to 5 minutes but they also have been seen feeding at depths of 2,000 feet for up to 20 minutes at a time.

Today, the Beluga's population counts 100,000 individuals. While numbers have decreased mainly due to hunting practices, it is not yet considered to be an endangered specie. An estimated 40,000 Belugas live in the Beaufort Sea, Hudson Bay is home to 25,045 individuals, the Bering Sea has a population of 18,500 Belugas, there are 28,008 of these marine mammals in the Canadian Low Arctic region and 1,000 more in the St. Lawrence estuary.

It is believed that the Belugas' health reflects the changes in the environment as they are easily affected by them.

The main predators of the Beluga are humans and polar bears. You see, humans seek their meat and blubber as polar bears attack them when Belugas are trapped by ice; offering bears a low resistance level as their entrapment causes them to become low on energy.

Pollution has also caused them to become intoxicated by chemicals such as PCB's causing them to suffer from cancer, reproductive diseases, anorexia, dermal plaques, lesions, pneumonia, microorganisms and intoxication due to food contamination. In fact, when carcasses of Belugas are found, they are usually treated as toxic waste.

Noise also represents a threat to Belugas' natural habitat due to whale watching tours, industrial and military activities. The United States of America and the Russian Navy have been known to use Belugas in anti -mining operations in the Arctic Ocean.

Certain viruses have been found in Belugas' carcasses. These viruses include: Papillomaviruses, Herpes, Encephalitis and Sarcocystis, Ciliates although the last ones may not be harmful or pathogenic in all cases.

As you can see, Belugas are not only friendly whales, they are about to enter a new environmental crisis that may soon affect their survival to the point of endangerment or even extinction. Either way, they need our help! After all, aren't we the responsible creatures that have been creating havoc with their natural habitat? Then, it just seems fair to take matters into our own hands and clean up that mess! Let's give them their life back, as Mother Nature intended to do it.

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