St. Lawrence Estuary
Canaries of the Sea
or Canaries in a Coalmine?
Beluga means "white one" in Russian
Beluga whales have a very distinctive uniform coloration that changes with age. The male is larger than the female at an average length between 3-5m (10-16ft) but this varies between populations. Their weight is usually between 500 - 1,500 kilos or 5 - 1.5 tons and their lifespan is about 30-35 years although some do live much longer than that.
The adult Beluga is white but may appear yellowish at certain times of the year. The young are slate-grey to reddish-brown which changes to blue-grey at 2 years of age. Young animals may be similar in color to Narwhals (Monodon monoceros) but are only found in the company of Beluga adults. Very social and curious studies on belugas in zoological environments indicate that they seek out physical contact with other belugas.
Like the Narwhal the Beluga has no dorsal fin. Instead, a Dorsal ridge extends along the back for about 50cm (20in) and may form a series of dark bumps. Both have unusually shaped flukes with convex trailing edges. They seem to face backwards in the Narwhal and although not as pronounced in the Beluga the trailing edges do become more convex with age. Flippers are broad, short, paddle-shaped and highly mobile. Much of the Beluga body, although evenly colored, has a rough skin which may have creases and folds of fat.
A well-defined crease can be found behind the single blowhole. The blow is visible in the right conditions of light, humidity or temperature. The Beluga has a stout body with a small head and a short but distinct beak. Teeth are arranged in both the upper and lower jaws, 8-11 pairs of irregular often curved teeth in the upper jaw and 8-9 pairs in the lower jaw.
The Beluga feeds upon squid, fish and crustaceans. Occasionally, they will eat worms and molluscs by dislodging them from the bottom with a jet of water from their mouths. A highly flexible neck aids in the scanning of the sea bottom and the capture of mobile prey. It has a well-defined neck and a prominent rounded melon that resonates during sound production.
The Beluga is one of the most vocal of the toothed whales. It has a large repertoire of clicks, moos, squeaks, trills and twitters that can be heard above and below the surface. By altering the shape of its forehead and lips a Beluga can make a variety of facial expressions. It may appear to smile, frown or whistle and while this may be a form of communication it is related to sound production. It may also have the most versatile and sophisticated sonar system of any cetacean.
Beluga have a well-developed, acute sense of hearing and the auditory cortex of the brain is highly developed. They can hear sounds in the range of 1.2 to 120 kHz, with a peak sensitivity of about 10 to 75 kHz. The average hearing range for humans is about .02 to 20 kHz. Most sound reception probably takes place through the lower jaw. A beluga may also receive sound through soft tissue and bone surrounding the ear.
The fat-filled lower jawbone appears to conduct sound waves through the jaw to bones in the middle ears. The lower jaw of toothed whales broadens and is hollow at the base, where it hinges with the skull. Within this very thin, hollow bone is a fat deposit that extends back toward the auditory bulla (earbone complex). Sounds are received and conducted through the lower jaw to the middle ear, inner ear, and then to hearing centers in the brain via the auditory nerve.
A beluga has small external ear openings, a few inches behind each eye. Each opening leads to a reduced ear canal and an eardrum. Some scientists believe that beluga whales receive sounds through these openings. Others believe that a beluga whale's external ear openings are nonfunctional. Biologists have noted sensory areas in beluga whale mouths that may function in taste. Olfactory lobes of the brain and olfactory nerves are absent in all toothed whales, suggesting that they have no sense of smell.
Beluga whales have acute vision both in and out of the water. A beluga's eye is particularly adapted for seeing in water. In air, certain features of the lens and cornea correct for nearsightedness. Their retinas contain both rod and cone cells, indicating that they may have the ability to see in both dim and bright light. (Rod cells respond to lower light levels than cone cells do.) The presence of cone cells suggests that belugas may be able to discern colors. Glands at the inner corners of the eye sockets secrete an oily, jellylike mucus that lubricates the eyes and washes away debris. This tear like film may also protect the eyes from microorganisms and infection.
The Beluga is a slow swimmer, spending much of its time near the surface. It is well adapted to living close to shorelines, it can swim well in very shallow water and move around in depths barely covering its body. If stranded in the shallows it can often survive until the next high tide.
Belugas are circumpolar, mainly Arctic but extending to subarctic, occupying coastal and estuarine areas. They are found off the coasts of Scandinavia, Greenland, Svalbard, the former Soviet Union, and North America. Many Belugas winter in areas of loose pack-ice where wind and ocean currents keep cracks and breathing holes open. Summers are spent in shallow bays and estuaries while some populations swim 1,000km (620miles) or more up river.
Most populations do not make extensive migrations. The longest migration is by those that winter in the Bering Sea and summer in the Mackenzie River, Canada. Some make no migration at all, such as, the resident population of the St. Lawrence River Estuary, Canada. The waters being cold enough year round and rich in food, the St. Lawrence belugas are likely a population that remained in the area since the last glaciation.
The total world population is probably between 40,000 and 55,000. Most reside in Baffin Bay, Davis Strait, the Barents, Kara and Laptev Seas. The Beluga has been hunted by Arctic native people for hundreds of years but over-hunting by commercial operators during the 20th century is what has reduced their numbers.
At the beginning of the last century, the St. Lawrence River population was perhaps over 5000 thousand individuals. The population was decimated by hunting and threatened by pollution but with the continuing effort of researchers like Robert Michaud and his team, naturalists and government agencies, these belugas are protected and remain on the endangered list since 1983 when their numbers were estimated to have dropped to about 500. A 1997 aerial survey estimated there were over 600 individuals, today the estimate is that are perhaps as many as 1000 in the entire region.
Jean Michel Cousteau
Whales have always fascinated me, as they do for many people. They are so much like us... air breathing mammals that suckle their young and have strong caring bonds.
Several sightings of a wayward Beluga in the Old Port of Montreal in Quebec, Canada have been reported recently. This whale is considered wayward because it is a historic first Beluga that has been seen in Montreal. Nearly a dozen sightings since Sept. 28. See Map. As you will see below, this is worrying for marine researchers. Sadly, as of today Montreal's Beluga is still in town.
I had been to Tadoussac about a 6 hour drive, from Montreal, along the North shore of the St. Lawrence River as a "young buck" in 1978. But not yet to study the whales. I had gone there with my hang-gliding instructor and others in my group, to hang-glide off the high cliffs, fly over the river, learn to do a proper u turn and then land on the sandy beach below the cliffs. We would then winch the hang-glider up the cliff and go again. It was then that I first became aware of the whales. I was smitten.
The next time was while I was an ecology student in 1988, I returned for a week of camping and whale observation. A friend of a friend had told me to look up a whale researcher in Tadoussac named Robert Michaud (GREMM). He has since become an authority on the Beluga population here. I returned again for 2 weeks in 1989, this time meeting Ned Lynas (ORIS), a researcher of Minke whales. Minke and other whales migrate every summer to feed in the food rich and sheltered environment of the estuary. There are at least 5 species that do this, returning for an almost non-stop feeding all summer long since their winter location down south is not as abundant. They scarcely feed at all in those warmer waters.
My main focus has been on the feeding and foraging behavior of the baleen whales, not so much the toothed whales such as the Beluga. But they are still dear to my heart. Most of my observation are Minke, Humpback, Fin and Blue whales. I've had several great encounters with the Belugas. One is my favorite, a Blue whale in particular. The data I gathered and some photos on each trip was shared with GREMM (Robert Michaud) and ORIS (Ned Lynas). My last time there was in 2000 and again in 2002. I haven't been since but was due. (Tongue in cheek) Turns out maybe a beluga came down to Montreal to see me and find out why I didn't come to them. :)
Here is one close encounter I had with a Beluga on Aug 14 2000. I was tandem kayaking just north of Tadoussac. From far off we saw a recognizable white back and each time it surfaced it was appearing a little bigger. It is forbidden to approach them. We stopped paddling and stayed still, just drifting. watching as it still keep approaching us. Amazed, I watched as it swan right up close to our kayak. We were eye to eye, it watched me from below as I watched it from above. It swam right under me and to the other side of the kayak. Surfacing again close by. Eventually it turned and then made it's way back out in the direction of the deeper water it had come from. I had the presence of mind to take a series of photos of the entire encounter. Here are a just two shots from that series of photos. One coming and one going.
This is the individual that swam under me.
This isn't me or my videos below.
It's just to give you an idea, but
they are Belugas from the St. Lawrence Estuary.
Seeing Eye to Eye
It's almost exactly the same way it happened to me
A curious and playful species.
This video, well, it's awesome:
This beluga enjoys swimming along with the kayak
and even giving it a push along from behind.
It is a daunting challenge.
They are a fragile population showing no real sign of a strong recovery. The beluga adults and babies are dying at rates a small population can't afford. Add to this a low rate of reproduction, belugas have one calf at a time and raise them for several years but their reproductive health impairs this too. These all point to a community under some distress. The resident beluga population here still living year round in a toxic chemical soup. The same waters and environment that we use and get food from. What we see happening the belugas health should also be a warning to us. They are also canaries in a coalmine.
Dead belugas that are not eaten or carried down river to the gulf of St. Lawrence will often wash up on the shore. The bodies are so full of toxins that the corpse itself is classed as a toxin hazard site. Many autopsies have been performed and the health profiles of many of these individuals are not good. Chemical toxins concentrate in fat tissue. Given that about 40% of their mass is blubber the toxins accumulate and concentrate over their life span. Cancers are not uncommon.
A mother beluga suckles her young with milk that is 35% fat. In other words, every time a beluga mother feeds her calf, she is pumping her baby full of concentrated toxins.
They are both...canaries of the sea and the coalmine. When they are healthy and happy, they are a cute, curious cetacean but if we are unable to solve the ecological problem of our environmental pollution by both industry and consumers, they are also a forewarning of environmental danger.
For more read this COSEWIC Status Report
Have You Seen This Beluga Whale?
if you see anything unusual
involving a marine mammal...
Do Not Approach or Disturb!
Marine Mammals Emergency Network
Montreal’s beluga was seen three times
in the St. Lawrence River near the Old Port on Oct. 17.
© 2012 MU-Peter Shimon