Beluga whales


Belugas are very popular because of their facial expressions. You can often meet them in great numbers in Quebec, Manitoba and Nunavut.


Foto: shutterstock/John_Wollwerth


Belugas are deemed very friendly and expressive. That is mostly due to their ability to freely move their heads and lips, giving them a wide range of facial expressions. They are also very communicative and playful.

From a human point of view, belugas are deemed the most likeable whales. That, however, is a problem for the belugas, because even now, in the 21st century, people think it’s a good idea to catch wild belugas, lock them into an aquarium for life and teach them stupid tricks.

And it’s not the fault of the beluga at all. The reason why we can relate to them so well is that they can move their lips and head and wrinkle their forehead. That offers a wide range of facial expressions, which makes humans assume to see smiles and the like.

»Belugas utter a great variety of whistling, squeaking and flute-like sounds. This earns them the nickname: Canaries of the sea.«

Belugas are also very peculiar when it comes to acoustics, which adds to the impression of them being constantly happy: They utter a great variety of whistling, squeaking and flute-like sounds, which are often even audible above the water or through the bulk of a ship. Calling them the “canaries of the sea” is the next degree of belittlement.

Belugas locked up in an aquarium are a sad and frustrating thing: Big animals locked in way too small pools, separated from their families, bored by foolish tricks and manically swimming around in circles. Just like for orcas, aquariums are no place for a beluga.

To this, it’s not even that hard to see belugas in the wild, at least in some places. The big populations in the polar seas might be hard to reach, but some of them are true to their locations. For example, they can be visited all summer long in Manitoba and Quebec in Canada.

Wild belugas are curious, playful animals, which can be very active on the surface. They often approach boats and kayaks and sometimes even like to interact. They usually travel in groups of 5 to 20 animals. During summer, they can be seen in hundreds in bays and mouths of rivers.


Illustration: Tobias Gehrt /

3 to 5 meters. Males are bigger than females. Maximum weight: 1 ton.


White or light yellow all over. Young animals are grey, getting lighter with age.


Rather shapeless body. Little head with a visible melon, short snout.


Visually unimpressive but noisy. No higher than one meter.


No fin but a well visible hump.


Slightly heart-shaped, sometimes with a blackish frame along the edges. With age, the fluke gets a more and more prominent shape.


Often curious and playful. They often approach boats and kayaks and sometimes even like to interact. Very active on the surface, but only rarely jumping.


Most of the time the pattern consists of several short breaths on the surface, then a deeper dive of about one minute.


Approximately 150.000 animals worldwide, endangered in some regions.


Foto: istock/Dennis_Carlyle

Checklist BELUGAS

Belugas are hard to confuse with another whale because of their white color and their very expressive face. However, they are hard to spot when moving near ice.

Belugas prefer calm waters near to the coast. They can usually be found in bays or mouths of rivers but almost never in the open sea. Mostly, you will meet groups of 5 to 20 animals, in mouths of rivers occasionally also groups of hundreds or even thousands of animals. They are easy to recognize because of their white color, sometimes hard to spot near ice, though.

Belugas are rather slow swimmers, which spend a lot of time on the surface. They usually do 5 to 6 shallow dives of about one minute and then a deeper one, also lasting about one minute. The movements are rather flat and when surfacing, the head is well visible, followed by the white back, which disappears again very soon. The fluke is almost never seen.

Belugas impress more by their numbers and their spyhopping on the surface. They often splash their flukes and flippers in the water but rarely ever jump. Good photos of belugas are best taken while they are spyhopping. Or from the air.


Foto: shutterstock/Daniil_Ermolchuk

When and where BELUGAS

The easiest places to see belugas in summer are the north and east of Canada, mostly from Churchill, Manitoba and Tadoussac in Quebec.

Belugas are home close to the coasts along the Arctic Sea. They rarely travel away too far from the coast. Their migration routes are short and mostly depending on the extent of the ice. In summer, they often retreat to into the more shallow fjords or into the mouths of rivers, where you can see them in hundreds or thousands. During winter, they follow the floating sea ice.

There are some populations true to their location as in the Cook Inlet in Alaska and in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence and Hudson Bay. The population in Alaska has gone down to a few hundred animals and is endangered. The populations in Canada, however, are stable and can be watched best from Churchill, Manitoba (Hudson Bay) and Tadoussac, Quebec (Gulf of St. Lawrence).

The belugas in the Gulf of S. Lawrence are the southernmost ones worldwide. They can be spotted reliably during summer between Tadoussac and Cap Caspé.

There are theoretical chances of seeing belugas near the coasts of Svalbard and Greenland. However, most people go there in summer when the ice and therefore the belugas are far further up north.

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