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Beluga whale was discovered
First Beluga Whale Seen in Puget Sound for 80 Years Could Be ‘Far From Home’
A beluga whale was seen in Puget Sound near Commencement Bay Thursday afternoon. It’s the third time the beluga whale has been spotted in the region this week.
Based on initial observation, Mahoney said the beluga does not appear to be injured and is swimming in a healthy manner. She and her colleagues wonder if it traveled from as far away as the Cook Inlet, near Anchorage, which is more than 1,000 miles north of Puget Sound.
“We have over 400 belugas identified in Cook Inlet from photographs so we can do a match from your whale in Seattle, to the whales in Cook Inlet we can identify that it is from Cook Inlet,” Mahoney said.
Mahoney also does not know for certain how and why the beluga made it so far from home.
“It’s a mystery for me, it’s a mystery for a number of people. We don’t have a first root of cause why,” she said.
Unlike most other whales, the beluga has a very flexible neck that enables it to nod and turn its head in all directions.
Belugas generally live together in small groups known as pods. They are social animals and vocal communicators using a diversified language of clicks, whistles, and clangs. Belugas can also copy a variety of other sounds.
Beluga whales are toothed cetaceans that are easily identified by a white, stocky body and a protruding forehead called a melon. These whales, which are actually born a blue-gray color, can grow to about 4.5 m (15 ft) and weigh over 3,000 lbs. The males are slightly larger than the females. Belugas are primarily found in the very cold waters of the arctic and subarctic regions of the northern hemisphere, generally near pack ice or in open water.
Although some populations are migratory seeking warmer waters in the summer, many are year-round residents of the Arctic. In addition, there is a sub-Arctic group that is a year-round resident of the St. Lawrence River Estuary. Lacking a dorsal fin, these whales are able to maneuver easily under floating ice (See How do marine animals use sound to navigate?).
Beluga whales are the only cetaceans that do not have fused neck bones and as a result, they are able to move their heads from side to side and up-and-down.
Belugas are widely known for their diverse and frequent vocalizations and have been given the nickname, “sea canaries.” These sounds are used for echolocation and for communication with other individuals. (See How do marine mammals communicate using sound?)
Originating in the air sacs of the head, these vocalizations sound like a variety of whistles, squeals, chirps and clicks. It is even possible to hear these sounds above water or through the hull of a boat.
Belugas generally live together in small groups known as pods. They are social animals and very vocal communicators that employ a diversified language of clicks, whistles, and clangs. Belugas can also mimic a variety of other sounds.
Belugas are also called white whales, and their unusual color makes them one of the most familiar and easily distinguishable of all the whales. Calves are born gray or even brown and only fade to white as they become sexually mature around five years of age.
White whales are smallish, ranging from 13 to 20 feet in length. They have rounded foreheads and no dorsal fin.
Beluga whales are dark grey as calves. Their skin lightens as they age, becoming white as they reach physical maturity. They lack a pronounced rostrum, or beak, and the top of their head is characterized by a round, flexible “melon” that focuses and modulates their vocalizations, including echolocation “clicks.” They are a toothed whale, possessing 18 to 20 teeth in both the upper and lower jawbones, for a total of 36 to 40 teeth.
The genus name Delphinapterus translates to “dolphin without a fin.” Instead of a dorsal fin, belugas have a tough dorsal ridge, which allows them to swim easily under ice floes (sheets of floating ice). Unlike other whales and dolphins, their neck vertebrae are not fused, so belugas can nod and move their heads from side to side.
Beluga whales are covered with a thick layer of blubber that accounts for up to 40 percent of their weight. The blubber keeps them warm in the arctic waters and stores energy. Some beluga populations shed their outer layer of skin each summer during an annual molt. They rub against coarse gravel in shallow waters to help remove the layer of old, yellowed skin.
Behavior and Diet
Belugas are social animals. They return to their birth areas each summer to feed and calve. Groups may range from one or two whales to several hundred whales. Individuals move between groups within these populations, unlike some killer whales, which appear to have strong ties within their maternal-led pods.
Belugas are known as the “canaries of the sea” because they produce many different sounds, including whistles, squeals, moos, chirps, and clicks. They rely on their hearing and ability to echolocate, using sound to navigate and hunt for prey. Belugas also have sharp vision in and out of water.
Beluga whales have a varied diet consisting of octopus, squid, crabs, shrimp, clams, snails, and sandworms. They also eat a variety of fish, including salmon, eulachon, cod, herring, smelt, and flatfish.
Where They Live
Beluga whales live in the Arctic Ocean and its nearby seas in the Northern Hemisphere. They are common to many regions of Alaska, as well as Russia, Canada, and Greenland. Belugas are usually found in shallow coastal waters during the summer months, often in shallow water. During other seasons, they may be found in deeper waters, diving to 1,000-meter depths for periods of up to 25 minutes.
They swim among ice floes in arctic and subarctic waters, where temperatures may be as low as 32°F. Belugas also seasonally inhabit estuaries and large river deltas to feed on fish runs, and are thus well-adapted to both cold ocean habitats and relatively warmer freshwater habitat.
Lifespan & Reproduction
Beluga whales are believed to mate in late winter and spring. Depending on the population, this may occur during migration or in their wintering grounds. Females reach sexual maturity when they are about 6 to 14 years old, and males when they are slightly older. Pregnancy lasts approximately 15 months, and calves nurse for at least 2 years. Females can give birth every 2 to 3 years.
Pregnancy rates showed signs of decline after age 46 years old in northwest Alaska. It is notable, however, that the oldest female in the northwest Alaska sample, at age 70, was carrying a near-term fetus. The oldest female beluga whale from Cook Inlet was 47 years old and appeared to have recently given birth.
Belugas generally give birth during summer in areas where the water is relatively warm, as newborn calves lack a thick blubber layer to protect them from cold water. Calves benefit from the warmer waters found in shallow tidal flats and estuaries.
Beluga whale populations are exposed to a variety of stressors and threats, including pollution (e.g., chemicals, trash), shipping, energy exploration and development, commercial fishing, extreme weather events, strandings, predation from killer whales and polar bears, underwater noise, subsistence harvesting, and other types of human disturbance. The Cook Inlet population has additional threats because of its proximity to the most densely populated area of Alaska (Anchorage).
Beluga whales are susceptible to habitat destruction and degradation. This can range from barriers that limit their access to important migration, breeding, feeding, and calving areas, to activities that destroy or degrade their habitats. Barriers that could prevent beluga movements may include shoreline and offshore development (oil and gas exploration and development, harbors and ports, dredging, pile driving) and increased boat traffic. Contaminant releases may also degrade habitat.
Contaminants enter ocean waters from many sources, including point source and nonpoint source, such as oil and gas development, wastewater discharges, urban runoff, and other industrial processes. Once in the environment, these substances move up the food chain and accumulate in predators at the top of the food chain such as beluga whales. Because contaminants have long lifespans and blubber stores, belugas accumulate these contaminants in their bodies, threatening their immune and reproductive systems.
Overfishing, habitat changes, development, and the impacts of climate change can decrease the amount of food available to beluga whales. Without enough prey, belugas might experience decreased reproductive rates and increased mortality rates. Understanding the potential for food limitations to hinder population recovery is especially important for Cook Inlet beluga whales because they live in an area with high human activity.
Live strandings occur when marine mammals become “beached” or stuck in shallow water. The exact cause of most stranding cases is unknown. Belugas may strand when molting avoiding predators; or avoiding other threats, such as noise and vessel traffic; when chasing prey, or when suffering from injuries or disease.
Unlike other whales and dolphins, healthy belugas that live-strand wait for the high tide to refloat and swim to deeper water. Unfortunately, belugas have died after live strandings. Belugas with compromised immune systems may not survive a live stranding through a tide cycle.
Underwater noise pollution interrupts the normal behavior of beluga whales, which rely on sound to communicate and echolocate. If loud enough, noise can cause permanent or temporary hearing loss. This is of particular concern for the Cook Inlet population, which inhabits an area with high vessel traffic, oil and gas exploration and development, dredging and pile-driving, airports, military operations, and other noise-making anthropogenic (human-caused) activities.
The impacts of climate change on whales are unknown, but it is considered one of the largest threats facing high latitude regions where many gray whales forage. Most notably, the timing and distribution of sea ice coverage is changing dramatically with altered oceanographic conditions.
Any resulting changes in prey distribution could lead to changes in foraging behavior, nutritional stress, and diminished reproduction for beluga whales. Additionally, changing water temperature and currents could impact the timing of environmental cues important for navigation and migration.
Class – Mammalia
Mammals are characterized by the following features:
- Mammals are “warm-blooded”: they maintain a constant, high body temperature independent of their surroundings.
- As a rule, mammals bear live young. (Two primitive mammals are exceptions to this rule: the duck-billed platypus and the spiny anteater both lay eggs.)
- Mammals nurse their young with milk.
- Mammals have hair, at least at some stage in their development. Many baleen whales have sparse hairs on the snout, jaws, and chin.
The scientific name for the beluga literally means “white dolphin without a fin.”
Other common names for the beluga include “white whale” and “belukha.” They are also nicknamed “sea canaries” because of their vocalizations.