by Whit Gibbons

May 27, 2012

A baby beluga whale was born in Atlanta last week. This reminded me of an earlier column where I wrote of being mesmerized as I watched two of these ghostlike leviathans from only a few feet away. Not only can beluga whales turn their heads and look at you, but they do so with near-human facial expressions and big, imploring eyes.

I wanted this to be the part where I tell you that I was wearing an Arctic drysuit and peering at them through my face mask while I checked my scuba tank and deftly avoided icebergs. Or that I was peering out the window of a room-temperature submersible 100 feet deep off the coast of Iceland. Actually, I was watching these gentle giants as they swam around the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta while I sipped a glass of wine during a conference. Little did I know then that I was watching the future mother of the baby born last week.

White whales that reach lengths of 13 feet (females) to 18 feet (males), belugas live in Arctic waters so cold that a person falling overboard might survive two minutes. Belugas have no dorsal fin and their side flippers are relatively small. The biological explanation is that such bodily extensions result in heat loss, not ideal for a creature that spends its lifetime swimming in icy water. Their torpedo shape enhances their supple and graceful body movement, which 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 a rather come-hither look (except when they close their eyes), as if 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 protruding tusk (up to nine feet long!) that develops from the single, left upper jaw tooth in males. Clearly, a narwhal can never be as charming as a beluga.

Beluga whales are believed to live more than 30 years. After a pregnancy of more than a year, mothers give birth to babies that are about five feet long and weigh approximately 175 pounds. 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 often consists of 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. They are still hunted and killed, and are threatened by commercial operations of various kinds.

I do not begrudge killer whales and polar bears their share of beluga whales. Killer whales and polar bears are supposed to eat them, in the same way that belugas eat their natural prey, fish and squid. Nor do I have a problem with indigenous peoples of the Arctic regions killing a beluga here and there for subsistence. But to kill a beluga whale with an explosive harpoon or a rifle merely for sport? I do have a problem with that behavior, which seems to me very unsportsmanlike.

Currently, beluga whales are protected only in Cook Inlet in southern Alaska, while debate continues about whether belugas should receive greater protection as an endangered species. Let decision-makers spend a few minutes watching a beluga whale and I think they would agree that these engaging animals deserve all the protection we can give them.

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