If you’re a wildlife lover and you hear “Churchill, Canada,” you likely think of polar bears. And you’d be right—after all, Churchill is considered the Polar Bear Capital of the World. But Churchill’s polar bears share the limelight with another fascinating creature, this one aquatic: the beluga whale. With their melon heads and alabaster-white coloring, these gentle giants are just as captivating as the ice bears of the north.
To give this beloved Arctic whale its due, let’s get to know them better, find out when, where and how to see them, and learn why they migrate to Churchill every summer.
Where Do Belugas Live?
If you’re looking for beluga whale habitat, you’ll want to head north. The whales inhabit the icy polar regions of the Arctic and the sub-Arctic coasts of Svalbard, Greenland, Europe, North America and Asia, where the water temperatures are below 59ºF. Particularly motivated belugas have been found as far south as the Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest and off the New Jersey Atlantic coast.
Where Do Beluga Whales Migrate?
The very social white beluga whales migrate in pods of ten or so under the guidance of a large, dominant male (in the past, pods have numbered in the thousands, but groups of this size are rarely seen anymore). Migration is determined by the distribution of prey and the amount of sea ice in the region.
Swimming at a speed of 2 to 6 miles per hour (though they are able to speed up to 14 miles per hour for about 15 minutes at a time), they migrate toward warmer estuaries formed by the Seal, Nelson and Churchill rivers on the southwestern coast of Hudson Bay. The Arctic beluga whale is known to thrive by the shoreline and can survive being stranded on land until the next high tide. The Hudson Bay beluga whale population has been known to number more than 50,000 during migration season.
When Can You See Beluga Whales in Canada?
As the ice recedes in the spring and summer, the Northland awakens. During July and August, when the amiable white whales are migrating from their spring breeding grounds, more than 3,000 of them congregate at the mouth of the Churchill River. Past travelers to the region at this time have described it as “literally hundreds, almost making the water boil.” There’s ample food here and it’s a safe place to birth their young. The stone bottom of the river provides a spa treatment of sorts for the whales, cleaning their skin and sloughing off old layers.
While they’re in the estuary region, the belugas fill up, to the tune of 50 pounds a day, on herring, flounder, salmon, shrimp, mollusks, octopus, squid, snails, crab and an array of bottom-dwelling organisms. They use their excellent echolocation skills to locate prey and dive for three to five minutes to feed.
How Can I See Beluga Whales in Canada?
The best way to be buddies with a beluga is on a specialized summer tour in Churchill, Canada. With expert wildlife and naturalist guides by your side, your beluga tour will take you up close to these curious cetaceans by way of motorized raft or kayak, without disturbing them. In small groups of no more than seven or so travelers, you can expect an intimate experience on the water, viewing the whales in their natural habitat.
What’s more, as this is when the Arctic wakes up from winter, you’ll be privy to all sorts of other subarctic summer flora and fauna, from those popular polar bears, set against the dark boreal forest, to caribou, Arctic and red fox, Arctic hare, snowy owl, ptarmigan and hundreds of migratory bird species. Some fortunate travelers will also have the opportunity to view the northern lights.
Five Fun Beluga Whale Facts
1. Beluga Whales Are Considered Small
To the average human, beluga whale size is large, but in the cetacean sense, they’re relatively small. The toothed belugas weigh between 1,100 and 3,300 pounds. Males are bigger than females, reaching up to fifteen feet in length.
2. Belugas Have Melon Heads
Call a beluga a “melon head” and it’ll agree with you. Their blunt head, small eyes and unique beak are complemented by a large protruding forehead, literally called a “melon.” It plays a large role in echolocation and communication. As a beluga spouts air through its sinuses, its melon can change shape, becoming flatter or more rounded depending on its nourishment. And, their melon can actually be used to express emotion; an agitated beluga will elevate its melon into a raised position, which means, “I’m stressed out. Give me space.”
3. Belugas Aren’t Born White
While their name has etymological origins in the Russian word biejuii, which means “white,” beluga whales are actually born with gray skin. As they age, they lose their pigmentation, resulting in the alabaster-white coloring we equate with belugas. The white skin also helps them camouflage into the Arctic sea ice, protecting them from orca whales and polar bears.
4. Beluga Whales Are Flexible
Well, their heads are. There are seven unfused vertebrae in a beluga’s neck, giving it the ability to turn its head in different directions.
5. Beluga Whales Are Friendly
Beluga whales love their friends! They are very social, gathering in large pods during migrations and times of plentiful prey. They love to “talk” to each other by squeaking, trilling, mooing, clicking and whistling. Listen carefully—most of their calls are audible to the human ear above and below water, leading whalers of old to nickname them “sea canaries.” The belugas use these sounds, as well as actual smiles, to express a broad variety of emotions within their pods. They even amicably blow bubbles from their blowholes! So if you’re wondering, “How smart are beluga whales,” the answer is, “Quite.” The beluga may possess the most advanced and diverse sonar system of all cetaceans.