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Beluga Whale

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The Beluga or White Whale (Delphinapterus leucas) is probably the most vocal of all the cetaceans. The chatter of this highly social animal can often be clearly heard above water or through the hull of a boat and it is often referred to as the "canary of the seas". An Arctic species, it's all-white, sometimes yellowish blubbery body, small head, rounded forehead, a seemingly smiling face makes the Beluga a very distinctive and beguiling animal. With a highly articulated neck Belugas can move their head from side to side, and even look backwards, and often swim on their sides or back and look upwards at whale watching boats, seemingly making eye contact with the occupants. When vocalising the forehead changes shape and the lips can appear rounded. Calves are 5 feet (1½ meters) and dark to brownish grey at birth and whiten with age, reaching pure white between the ages of 5 and 12. Full grown females are 10-13 feet (3-4 metres) in length, with males markedly larger at 12-18 feet (3½-5½ metres).

Out at sea belugas can be difficult to spot as they have a low profile with no dorsal fin, and rarely leap. They do however swim slowly and surface often to breathe, and off course their white colouration often stands out against a dark sea. They travel in groups of 5 to 20 individuals, but in the summer they often congregate in their thousands around estuaries and in rivers to feed and calve in the warmer freshwater, and this is without doubt the best opportunity to observe them. They have been known to swim hundreds of miles upriver in Canada, Russia and Northern Europe, and are regular visitors to the Churchill River in Manitoba, and the St. Lawrence River in Quebec.

Belugas are a legitimate target for a number of apex predators including Orcas and Polar Bears. During the Arctic winter they are often trapped by sea ice that closely in around them, and have to remain close to small breathing holes known as "polynyas" which they have to surface repeatedly in to keep them from freezing over. This of course brings them into harm's way from marauding polar bears, some of which are over 1,000 pounds (450 kilograms) in weight and more than capable of attacking and hauling out a beluga. They have also been hunted by Russians, Europeans, and First Nations people for many centuries. To the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic they are still traditional food source, but by far the most serious threat to their survival is the effects of oil and gas drilling, and industrial pollution. Sadly due to the prevailing ocean currents much of the chemical pollutants from the developed world accumulate in the polar seas, and being close to the top of the food chain, Orcas and Belugas have some of the highest trace levels of industrial PCB's of any animal on the planet.

On a Bear Trails tour you can see Belugas in Churchill, Manitoba in July and August when as many as 2,000 individuals come to feed and calve each year in the warmer waters of the Churchill River. They can be observed from small boats and zodiacs, or for a more intimate encounter you can kayak or even don a drysuit and snorkel with them.

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