A 20-year study has finally shed some light onto the lives of beluga whales, one of the Arctic’s most elusive creatures.
The Beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) – commonly referred to as melonhead, beluga or sea canary – is an essential part of the Arctic ecosystem. These whales are very important not only for the natural ecology, but also for the Inuit communities that live throughout the Arctic Circle. For the native tribes in the area, marine animals in general have cultural and spiritual value, and represent a source of nutrition. Beluga males can grow up to 18 feet (5.5 metres) long and weigh up to 3,500 pounds (1,600 kilograms).
Donna Hauser, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, said that not much is known about how the changing sea ice affects the beluga whales.
In the study – published last December in Marine Ecology Progress Series – the researchers found clues about the migration patterns of beluga whales. Most of the whales engage in migrational behaviour, but some subpopulations just stay in waters that are warm enough throughout the year.
Barbara Mahoney, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries department in Alaska, said that during the summer belugas spend their time in one area where there is plenty of food and then they migrate further south when winter comes.
In search for arctic cod (Arctogadus glacialis), the whales will swim to depths of almost 0.62 miles (one kilometre). However, the beluga whales are not at the top of the food chain as they can fall prey to polar bears and killer whales – especially since global warming pushes the ice further north and enables the orcas (killer whales) to get closer to belugas’ habitat.
According to Ms. Hauser, the belugas start migrating along channels as the ice is breaking up in spring. Polar bears can sometimes grab the whales when the belugas surface for air, she explained.
For this study, the researchers have collaborated with Aboriginal tribes in Canada and with Native communities in Alaska, both of which have tracked beluga whales. The first data was collected back in 1993.
There are about twenty to twenty-five beluga whale populations in the Arctic that appear to be stable, but there is also a whale population in Anchorage, Alaska, that is thought to be endangered, according to Hauser.
Image Source: i2