Article | Canadian High Arctic and Greenland

Belugas: Iconic White Whales of the Arctic

Charming and cute belugas are a fascinating species of Arctic whale. Learn where the best places are to travel to in Canada so you can see them for yourself! Find out more about their physiology, diet, and distribution, plus how belugas got their name.
Large pod of belugas Churchill estuary

© Pierre Richard

Beluga whales, also sometimes called white whales, are an iconic species of the Arctic. The white colour of adult belugas gives this species their name, which comes from the Russian belyi, meaning "white” or “the white one.”

Sometimes their name causes confusion with the similarly named beluga sturgeon or white sturgeon, a fish famous for its caviar. Beluga whales do not produce caviar. They are mammals who give live birth, like us.

Belugas are medium-sized toothed whales (about 3.5-5 metres in length) that inhabit our polar regions. Canada hosts the largest population of belugas in the Arctic; they are found across subarctic regions like the Saint Lawrence estuary and Hudson Bay, and right across the High Arctic and in the Beaufort Sea.

Beluga Whale-Watching in Churchill, Manitoba

The largest summer population of belugas is in western Hudson Bay, numbering about 54,000 whales. In particular, the Churchill River can have one to three thousand belugas in its estuary during the summer season. It is no doubt the best place in the world to see belugas up close and in large numbers. The Churchill estuary has very active beluga whale-watching operations and this population is used to these boats and will frequently interact with them.

Belugas whale watching tour Churchill Manitoba

© Pierre Richard

Churchill River beluga estuary

Belugas along the Saint Lawrence River

Belugas can be also seen in the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park. This area is the initial stop on Adventure Canada’s Mighty Saint Lawrence expedition cruise. While maintaining a safe distance from the whales, we have had some decent beluga sightings either from the ship or from a coastal trail near the town of Tadoussac.

The Saint Lawrence beluga population is small, much reduced from its historic numbers, and is considered endangered. It is an amazing opportunity to be able to see them near the mouth of the Saguenay River, which is the center of their summer distribution.

Beluga whales in St Lawrence River

© Dennis Minty

Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park

Spotting Belugas in the High Arctic

Besides the Churchill and Saguenay Rivers, belugas can also be seen during Adventure Canada's Arctic expedition cruises, such as High Arctic Explorer and Into or Out of the Northwest Passage. We have occasionally seen them in bays, straits, and coastal areas of Devon Island, Somerset Island, and Prince of Wales Island.

In these areas, belugas are shy and are not as accustomed to ship traffic as their counterparts are in Western Hudson Bay. On a hike or Zodiac cruise in these areas, we sometimes see a pod or two of belugas searching for big schools of Arctic cod, which form in the late summer.

Belugas swimming Coningham Bay

© Scott Forsyth

Belugas swimming in the shallows near Coningham Bay, Nunavut

Coloration of Beluga Whales

Adult belugas are pearly white in colour, while young belugas are slate grey. Older juveniles are a lighter grey, referred to by some as blue, and nicknamed bleuvet in French. When they reach physical maturity, they turn almost entirely white with some remaining grey along the edge of the fins, flukes, and dorsal ridge.

While belugas have a dorsal ridge—a line of skin somewhat like the bottom of an inverted rowboat—they have no dorsal fin, which is unusual among toothed whales. However, this is perhaps an advantage for animals who live in pack ice for a good portion of the year and, being mammals, must regularly surface through openings in the ice floes to breathe! They share this characteristic with their Arctic cousin the narwhal, as well as a few other species of toothed whales around the world.

Small pod of belugas Churchill Manitoba estuary

© Pierre Richard

A pod of older juvenile (top left), young juvenile (top right), and adult (bottom) belugas

Beluga Diet

Belugas are predominantly fish eaters in the summer. They hunt schools of capelin in Hudson Bay and Arctic cod at higher latitudes. In the fall and winter, they may also eat shrimp and Greenland halibut, often diving to depths of 400-800 metres or more—a stark difference from their summertime shallow coastal habits that have made them famous.

However, even during the mid-summer, in Franklin Strait between Somerset Island and Prince of Wales Island, belugas tagged with tracking instruments have been shown to dive down to bottom depths which can reach 500 metres, presumably feeding on benthic, deep-water Arctic cod.

When large schools of fish or shrimp are not available, belugas are known to ingest quite a variety of other fish, crustaceans, or bivalves. In the Beaufort Sea, they are eat Pacific herring.

Beluga whale under boat

© Pierre Richard

A curious beluga explores a whale-watching boat in the Churchill River. Photo taken with an underwater camera.

Predator & Prey

Belugas have been an important Inuit food source for millennia and are still sustainably hunted for traditional subsistence in the Arctic today. Maktaaq, as it's called in Inuktitut, is the thick skin and blubber of beluga, narwhal, or bowhead whale, and is rich in protein, fat, and vitamins. It is often eaten raw by Inuit, who relish its flavour and nutritive properties.

Sometimes on an Arctic expedition, we may find the remains of an Inuit hunt: a beluga carcass that has had its skin and outer layer of fat removed. The leftovers go on to support other life in the Arctic, attracting polar bears and seabirds who feast on the remains.

In other places, we may even see beached beluga remains left over from a polar bear hunt, found where belugas attempted to cross a stretch of shallow water. Polar bears are opportunistic hunters, and an easy kill such as this represents a good source of food during the summer, when their mainstay prey—ringed seals—are hard to catch without an icy platform.

Polar bear and beluga skeleton

© Pierre Richard

A beluga skeleton stripped clean by bears, on the shore of a lagoon at Prince of Wales Island

If you want to learn more about belugas or have the chance to see them for yourself, join us on an Adventure Canada expedition, where we look for these iconic white whales and other marine mammal species. You’ll learn so much from our team of naturalists, and I can’t wait to see you there!

About the Author

Pierre Richard

Pierre Richard

Marine Biologist

Pierre is a north Atlantic and Arctic marine mammal specialist, an avid birder, and a naturalist. He was one of the first naturalists on board Saint Lawrence whale-watching cruises in the 1970s and has been an Adventure Canada marine biologist and guide for nearly twenty years.

For thirty years, Pierre was employed as a marine biologist and scientist at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, during which time he conducted field research on beluga whales, narwhals, and walrus. He has authored many scientific publications and three nature guides on marine mammals.