In seas filled with more than 80 species of cetaceans, belugas definitely stand out from the crowd. From their distinct pale shade to their relatively petite stature, these social marine mammals are easily identified in their Arctic neighborhood. Here are 10 facts worth knowing about the bubbly beluga whale.
1. The beluga’s nickname isn’t as mean as it sounds.
Belugas are sometimes referred to as “melonheads,” and while that sounds like a name thought up by a middle school bully, it actually has some scientific basis. The bulbous structure that occupies the whale’s forehead is indeed called a melon, and it can be found in all species of toothed whales. The fatty organ is believed to aid in echolocation (a process in which animals use echoes of their calls to locate and identify objects), and it can be observed changing shape during whale vocalizations.
2. Belugas are extremely vocal.
Another, much nicer-sounding nickname belugas have earned for themselves is “sea canary.” The name comes from the animal’s rich and varied vocalizations, which are sometimes loud enough to be heard through the hulls of ships. A 2015 study of a beluga population in Alaska's Beaufort Sea documented 34 distinct calls, which can sound like high-pitched whistles, clicks, mews, bleats, chirps, and bell-like tones. The noises are used for echolocation when navigating dark waters, and experts believe they also function as a form of communication between whales. Mothers and calves exchange calls that can be compared to the sound of a finger running along a plastic comb.
3. Belugas can even mimic human speech.
Beluga whales living in captivity have been reported to mimic the speech of their human handlers. A whale named NOC, who lived at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego for 30 years, was one of the first belugas observed to exhibit this type of behavior. A human diver was once convinced to climb out of the whale’s tank when he heard what he thought was another person instructing him to leave. It turned out that the sound had actually been NOC mimicking the word “out.”
4. Belugas also use bubbles to communicate.
In addition to being master vocalists, belugas are also experts when it comes to bubble-blowing. A study of 44 captive beluga whales showed that this behavior is more than just a source of amusement for them. While rings and bubbles slowly released from the blowhole are believed to be a sign of playfulness, other bubble types are suspected to serve more functional purposes. Sudden bubble bursts can indicate a defensive reaction, while matching bubble rings blown by a pair of whales is thought to be a social bonding behavior.
5. Belugas’ unique coloring helps them survive.
The word beluga is derived from the Russian term for “white”, bielo. The mostly pure white shade of adults (calves are dark gray) is arguably the whale’s most distinctive feature, but it’s meant to help them blend in, not stand out. As they swim among sea ice in their Arctic habitat, their pigmentation is thought to act as camouflage [PDF] to protect them from predators like polar bears and orcas.
6. Belugas’ necks are unusually flexible.
Unlike most whales and dolphins, the seven neck vertebrae of the beluga whale are not fused together. This allows the animal the freedom to turn its head side to side and nod up and down. The adaptation is thought to help them better target their prey in areas that are full of ice or silt.
7. Belugas can swim backwards.
Belugas possess another ability that is quite unusual among cetaceans: They can swim backwards. Their impressive maneuverability skills make up for their sluggish speeds of two to six miles per hour.
8. There’s a good reason why belugas lack a dorsal fin.
Some whales and dolphins can be easily spotted when their dorsal fins break through the water’s surface, but this feature is absent from the backs of belugas. The reduction of surface area helps prevent heat loss in the frigid Arctic Ocean, and it also makes it easier for them to glide directly beneath sheets of ice. They do, however, have a sturdy dorsal ridge along their backs that helps them break up ice layers.
9. Belugas are close cousins with narwhals.
The beluga is closely related to another unusual species of Arctic whale—the narwhal. The two medium-sized toothed whales are the only members of the family Monodontidae.
10. Belugas pack plenty of blubber.
Beluga whales have adapted to their Arctic habitat by developing an especially thick layer of insulation. Blubber alone accounts for more than 40 percent of the whale’s body weight.
A version of this story ran in 2016. It has been updated for 2021.