Throughout my career as an aquatic animal veterinarian, I’ve had the great fortune to work with many beluga whales. One of my early mentors preferred calling them “white whales” because they are the only all-white whale species. These white whales are unique in the whale world for other reasons too. And I believe this is part of why they are so fascinating to get to know.
Belugas are so beautifully adapted to life in the northern circumpolar oceans that their body temperature is just about the same as yours or mine. In addition to their famous insulating blubber, they have a heat exchange system formed by the blood vessels in their flippers and flukes. The whales stay warm in part because heat in arterial blood flowing from the body’s core is transferred to surrounding veins returning blood from the extremities.
Belugas are even shaped for the cold. The simple rounded body form presents less surface area to lose heat to the environment. But their bulky build sure doesn’t limit their physical capabilities.
Belugas are master breath holders and phenomenal divers. They are also incredibly teachable. A number of years ago, as a member of the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps, I was part of a team studying the hearing of white whales on the West Coast for the Navy Marine Mammal Program.
Belugas echolocate using high-frequency sound waves produced in their upper airways around the blowhole and received by the lower jaw. A large amount of what we know about the hearing abilities of cetaceans was learned by working with trained animals. Usually this work was done at or near the surface so the human investigators could make observations and take measurements. But the whales use echolocation at the surface and in the depths. Did their hearing change under the tremendous pressures of the deep ocean?
To answer this and other questions, two Navy whales I worked with were trained to participate in hearing studies in the open ocean at depths of nearly 1,000 feet. A platform equipped with hydrophones and a camera was lowered from a boat to 300 meters. One at a time, the whales swam down to the platform and stationed on it, holding part of it in their mouths so that they always faced the equipment the same way. Then, when they heard a sound, they made a sound. All of this was caught on camera. It was absolutely astounding to a young veterinarian getting to know the whales. And perhaps the most astonishing part was how well the animals cooperated with the human investigators and with each other.
It took five minutes for a whale to dive to the platform, so to maximize our recording time, whale 2 was sent down about five minutes before whale 1 finished a session. Imagine watching a video feed of a white whale at depth listening intently for a sound and then chirping out a reply when suddenly another whale appears off to the side—and waits her turn!
From this study we learned that, unlike humans, whales hear just as well at depth as at the surface. This is critical information as we look at managing human-generated sound in the ocean.
As awe-inspiring it was to work with those whales, it was even more exciting to watch them at the end of the day head off to play in the shallows before they swam alongside the boat back to where we sheltered them overnight.
I have studied and cared for belugas in aquariums and in open-ocean settings, and I’ve always admired the willingness of these animals to participate in their care and to work alongside people to increase our understanding of their biology, physiology and health issues. If the Pacific white-sided dolphins are the Jack Russells of the cetacean world, belugas must be the Labradors.
Many beluga studies would be impossible if we could not conduct them in the aquarium setting. Since 1991, Shedd has led or participated in dozens of published studies focusing on beluga whales, and we are involved in a number of ongoing research projects. All of this work is shared with the international beluga conservation community to increase our body of knowledge on these magnificent animals and improve our ability to take care of them here and in the oceans.
—Dr. Bill Van Bonn
With Dr. Bill as your guide, discover the wonder of the white whales for yourself—up close in Churchill, Manitoba! And be swept away by the exuberance of the arctic summer. Sign up for this exciting Shedd Adventure today.