Beluga whale, Delphinapterus leucas.
Beluga, Delphinapterus leucas

There are approximately 30,000 belugas in the Canadian Arctic, with nearly 50% of them living in the vicinity of Baffin Island and passing through Lancaster Sound en route to their summer feeding grounds. The beluga, Delphinapterus leucas, is a small whale which rarely exceeds more than 5 m in length. Adults are cream-white, but juveniles are born slate-grey, turn bluish-grey as they mature, then progressively lighten until they become the characteristic cream-white colour around six years of age. In fact, its name is derived from the Russian word belyi for "white."

A pod of belugas.

Belugas are social animals, often occurring in gams (herds) of 100 or more individuals, which are broken up into what appear to be nursery groups (adult females and their young) and separate pods of adult males. Large herds also form in the autumn as animals migrate to their overwintering areas. Herds of up to 2000 individuals have been seen swimming just 200 m off the shores of Devon Island, in Baffin Bay, Davis Strait, and Ungava Bay.

A beluga lifing its head out of the water
to scan the surface.

The females breed about every 3 years, have a gestation period of 14 months, and give birth in late July or early August. Other female belugas in the nursery group assist the mother when she is giving birth – one whale swims on either side of the mother, pushing up against her to help squeeze the calf out.

The beluga was called the "sea canary" by early Russian whalers because it utters a wide variety of trills, moos, clicks, squeaks, and twitters, which can be heard above and below the surface. It may also have the most sophisticated echolocation system of any cetacean, projecting pulses in a narrow band forward from its forehead and listening for echo returns.

Beluga whale, Delphinapterus leucas.

The beluga is a toothed whale that feeds on a wide variety of fish and invertebrate species in shallow waters. It may even use its flexible lips to suck prey off the ocean floor. As a consequence of being near the top of the food chain, belugas in the St. Lawrence River have bioaccumulated high levels of pesticides and pollutants in their tissues. This and other populations of beluga are now endangered, threatened, and vulnerable, according to the Canadian Endangered Species List.