Our whale of the month for April is the beluga whale, which is the 6th whale you will encounter with our audio guide. Belugas have an average life expectancy of 35-50 years in the wild, though some studies have indicated that they can live as long as 70-80 years. Their average size ranges from 3-6 meters with males being slightly larger than females.
Belugas are born a grey or brown color and gradually turn completely white as they age. Their color helps them blend in with their arctic environment. They have a distinct head shape, with a large forehead called a 'melon'. The melon can change shapes when the whale emits sound and helps with echolocation. Melons are found on toothed whales, like the beluga or pilot whale, but not on baleen whales. The beluga is also very unique because the vertebrae in the neck are not fused together which allows them to turn their head or neck without moving the body. This is unusual in whales and dolphins.
The beluga is a toothed whale and has around 30-40 teeth. Their teeth are not very sharp and are used to capture prey, not chew them. Because their teeth are not sharp they use suction to capture and swallow prey. The different types of prey can include salmon, cod, halibut, and a variety of other fish. They are opportunistic feeders and have also been known to eat small octopus, crabs, shrimp, and other invertebrates.
Belugas have the nickname 'Canaries of the Sea' because of their methods of communication sound like a bird song. They are quite vocal and use a variety of songs, whistles, and clicks. Belugas, like all cetaceans, do not have vocal cords so their vocalizations come from manipulating the 2 air sacs near the blowhole.
These whales live in small pods ranging from a few individuals to over 20. They are highly social within their pods but individuals change pods frequently. Calves stay with their mothers to nurse for up to 2 years, and some will continue to remain part of the same pod. Females give birth every 1-3 years.
In the 18th and 19th centuries belugas were commercially hunted for their meat, blubber, and skin. Today they are still hunted by native peoples in Greenland, Canada, Alaska, and Russia. Russia is also known for capturing live belugas to sell to aquariums and theme parks. Their natural predators include orcas and polar bears. They are also sensitive to chemical and noise pollution - studies have suggested that populations closer to cities have higher rates of diseases like cancer and reproductive issues than arctic populations. Climate change will also have an impact on belugas and other arctic species as the oceans warm and ice continues to melt.
Belugas are not commonly seen in Iceland but are still occasionally spotted in the north of the country, when the whales come further south.