Explore by Animal
A beluga’s mouth is permanently upturned like a smile. It’s easy to connect with these sociable whales as they glide by in their Abbott Oceanarium habitat: They might turn a curious gaze your way, crinkle their melons (foreheads) and whistle—or even spit a stream of water! The fact that these interactions are natural behaviors only makes the experience more fun.
Often called “canaries of the sea,” beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) broadcast squeals, trills, chirps and other sounds through their blowholes. Shedd Aquarium’s whales can even mimic the raspy, Darth Vader-like breathing sounds of the scuba divers who clean their habitat. These vocalizations can be communications between animals. They might also be used to echolocate, or interpret the sound waves that bounce back to discern what food or obstacles are ahead. Echolocation is especially useful for navigating dark waters and finding breathing holes in ice.
Belugas live in the frigid waters near the Arctic Circle. Two layers of blubber pad their stocky, cigar-shaped bodies to keep them warm. Even though adults can grow to 18 feet and weigh up to 3,300 pounds, their skin color, which is slate gray at birth and gradually becomes creamy white, invisibly blends them into their icy background.
Naturally sociable, belugas often chase or rub against one another. They travel in pods of three to 10 whales. Calves imitate adults to learn life skills. One trait that raises the bar in their survival is a flexible neck. A beluga can turn and nod its head to find prey, including herring, octopus, squid, clams and crabs—up to 80 pounds of food a day. It will also spit a stream of water to uncover food on the sandy sea floor—or to surprise an aquarium guest!
Take a closer look at beluga whale research and rescues at Shedd.
A better understanding of belugas is critical to conserve and protect this species. In the wild, unregulated hunting and constant changes in habitat are thought to contribute to the decline of wild beluga populations. Noise, pollution, and industrial activity are also contributing factors to belugas' reduced habitat quality and contaminated food supply, while disease and predators are additional threats these animals face. The study of belugas in human care helps us understand the long-lasting effects these factors could play in the health of the global population.
At Shedd, we contribute to the management of the health and future of beluga whales in our care and beyond through our involvement in the North American beluga whale breeding cooperative, where we work with other institutions accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums (AMMPA).
With one of the most successful breeding programs in the North American beluga whale breeding cooperative, Shedd actively monitors the diet, behaviors and overall health of these magnificent animals from birth. We also look at the hearing and bioacoustics of belugas, which helps us understand their hearing thresholds, responses to noise and the potential effects of underwater sound levels.
The research conducted in aquariums and zoological parks contributes to a growing body of knowledge about the belugas’ biology, physiology and disease pathogenesis. The research creates baseline indicators to better understand the issues that threaten belugas in the wild. It also gives animal care staff, like Shedd’s Executive Vice President of Animal Care and Training, Ken Ramirez, to assist with beluga rescues. To date, Ken has traveled to Canada three times to provide expert consultation on the handling of orphaned belugas.