The beluga, or white whale, is a small, toothed whale. This plentiful marine mammal can be found in all coastal waters of the Arctic Ocean, the White and Bering seas, and the Sea of Okhotsk. Its position at the upper trophic level of the food chain makes it biologically comparable to humans. It has no natural predators or competitors, except in habitats it shares with killer whales.
Beluga whales feed mainly on fish; they are sensitive to even minor changes in marine ecosystems, especially ones resulting from man-made pollution and climate change.
They congregate in pods of up to several dozen individuals, and communicate with one another using a surprisingly rich variety of sounds, for which they have been dubbed "sea canaries." They can dive to great depths, using echolocation to locate bottom-dwelling prey, including salmon. They often chase their prey to rivers, where they can swim even in shallow and muddy waters.
Beluga whales can reach up to 6 metres in length, and weigh as much as 2 metric tons. Females usually give birth to one calf, whose skin colour is brown at birth but becomes fairer over time. Adult belugas are white but turn yellowish as they grow older.
Belugas lack a dorsal fin, which makes swimming under Arctic ice easier. They are quite stout and do not jump above the water surface.
Attractive and easy to train, they are often featured in aquarium shows. They are sociable creatures, and as such they are used in a variety of therapies, especially treating traumatised children.
Unfortunately, there has been no in-depth research of this species in the past thirty years. And most of the studies carried out before that were aimed primarily at protecting them from large-scale whaling.
The exact number of white whales currently dwelling in Russia's seas is unknown. Russian authorities issue licences to hunt up to 1,500 individuals each year. But current hunting quotas are not justified scientifically, and this can lead to overhunting and the depletion of existing populations. Russia's lack of policy rooted in scientific data undermines its ability to defend its positions on the sustainable use of natural resources at the international level.