BELUGA WHALES

by Whit Gibbons

December 21, 2008


Forgive the Bambi complex, but I cannot imagine anyone wanting to hunt, kill, or otherwise harm a beluga whale. I was mesmerized as, for half an hour, I watched two of these ghostlike leviathans from only a few feet away. Not only can they turn their heads and look at you, but they do so with near-human facial expressions and big, imploring eyes.

I would like for this to be the part where I tell you I was wearing an Arctic dry suit and peering at them through my face mask while I checked my scuba tank and avoided icebergs. Or maybe I was just looking out the glass of a room-temperature submersible 100 feet deep off the coast of Iceland. But in the spirit of honesty, I have to report that I was looking at these gentle giants as they swam around the world's largest aquarium at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, while I drank a glass of wine.

Belugas are white whales that reach lengths of 13 (females) to 18 (males) feet and live in Arctic waters so cold that a person falling overboard might survive two minutes. Structurally, belugas have no dorsal fin and their side flippers are relatively small, the biological explanation being that such bodily extensions result in heat loss, which is not an ideal feature for something that swims around in ice water for a lifetime. Their torpedo shape enhances their supple and graceful body movement and adds to their charisma.

The face of a beluga has an eerily personable look, and the ones in the aquarium were clearly interested in the strange creatures that were looking at them from the other side of the glass. In fact, one female returned again and again to stare at me as she glided past in slow motion, seemingly as fascinated with me as I was with her. Every time she passed my face she would close her eyes. Being coy, I suppose. Their agility is remarkable as they effortlessly roll over and swim upside down, giving you a rather come-hither look (except when they close their eyes) like they would really like for you to join them.

The closest relative to beluga whales is believed to be the narwhal, a strange enough creature in its own right. Narwhals are a sort of marine unicorn of the Arctic Ocean, with a long, protruding tusk (up to nine feet long!) that develops from the single, left upper jaw tooth in males. Clearly, a narwhal cannot be as charming as a beluga.

Beluga whales are believed to live more than 30 years, and females can begin having babies when they are about five or six. After a pregnancy of more than a year, mothers give birth to little gray whales that are about five feet long and weigh approximately 175 pounds. The young belugas keep their dark color until they are five or older. When they assume their full adult coloration of pure snow white, they become one of the most enchanting creatures of the Arctic seas. A pod is often 20 or more, and groups of more than a thousand have been reported in the past. But like so many other whales, belugas have declined in numbers in most regions, and they are still hunted and killed, or threatened by commercial operations of various kinds.

I don't have a problem with killer whales and polar bears eating their share of beluga whales. That is what they are supposed to do, in the same way that belugas eat their natural prey of fish and squid. In fact, I don't have a problem with Inuits, Eskimos, or whatever you wish to call indigenous peoples of the Arctic regions killing a beluga here and there for subsistence. But killing a beluga whale with an explosive harpoon or rifle for sport? Doesn't seem like very sportsmanlike behavior to me. Nevertheless, debate continues as to whether these fascinating and harmless creatures deserve endangered species protection. If you could spend a few minutes watching a beluga whale, I believe you would agree they deserve all the protection we can give them.


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