Ensuring the Beluga Whale’s Future in the Arctic
Known for their white skin, distinctive “melon” foreheads, and high pitched cries, the beluga whale is one of only three cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) that reside within the Arctic. Belugas are well adapted to their harsh environment, boasting a five inch thick layer of blubber around their bodies to keep out the chill. Lacking a dorsal fin, they can swim forwards or even backwards under Arctic sea ice as they dive for Arctic cod or other prey.
Although even the word beluga stems from the Russian word for “white,” bielo, young beluga whales are typically a dark grey in color which lightens over time. They can even take on a yellowish hue after they have molted. As social animals, belugas communicate in high pitched clicks, whistles, and chirps, leading some to dub them the “canaries of the sea.”
Belugas are divided into populations based on the estuaries they migrate to each summer from their winter habitat. Historically this devotion to specific estuaries each summer made them ideal prey for commercial whalers, which decimated the global population. Although commercial hunting has ceased, many populations of beluga have yet to recover from its impacts.
Today there are more than 150,000 belugas living in the wild, and they are imperiled by the increasingly industrial human presence in the Arctic and near Arctic. Manmade climate change is causing the Arctic to warm at twice the global rate, and it is melting the sea ice that serves as the cornerstone for the region’s ecology. By 2050 the Arctic may be ice free in the summer. Large-scale shipping through Russia’s Northern Sea Route, and eventually through the fabled Northwest Passage, will drastically increase the level of noise in Arctic waters, impairing the ability of whales to hunt and communicate through sound. Exploration for oil and natural gas will also increase the possibility of a catastrophic oil spill in the Arctic, with no proven way of cleaning it up. As large predators, belugas are also vulnerable to pollution in their habitat, which can contaminate their habitat and prey.