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A beluga whale peers interestedly at an underwater camera in Shedd's Abbott Oceanarium

Beluga Whales

Beluga whales are a large, Arctic and sub-Arctic species of cetacean. The species is characterized by snowy white skin, an impressive repertoire of vocalizations and a flexible melon on the whale’s head that it can use to communicate.

For more than 30 years, Shedd and accredited partners have contributed to research on behalf of these extraordinary marine mammals to better understand their biology, behaviors, reproduction, immune function and more. These findings can help influence policies and other protections for critically endangered populations of belugas in the wild.

Beluga whale Kayavak peers out of the water at Shedd Aquarium.

All About Beluga Whales

Beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) live in cold Arctic waters near the coasts of North America, Russia and Greenland. As a mostly migratory species, beluga whales spend the winter around the Arctic ice cap, and the summer in warmer river estuaries to give birth.

Their bodies are perfectly adapted for living in both environments. Their bright white coloring as adults helps them blend in with snow and frost around them, and lack of a dorsal fin makes it easy to navigate under and through floating ice. Beluga whales also have layers of thick blubber to keep them warm. In dark river waters during summer months, calves are born a deep gray color to keep camouflaged from predators.

Some subpopulations of belugas are not migratory, and rather stay in the same areas year-round, such as in Alaska’s Cook Inlet and Canada’s St. Lawrence Estuary. These groups are more susceptible to conservation challenges that have caused their numbers to decline.

All beluga whales have protruding foreheads, called melons, used for echolocation and communication. The species is nicknamed “the canaries of the sea” for the large array of noises they make like whistles, clicks, brays and more. They tend to be social, living in groups called pods with about 10 or more whales.

The species can grow up to 18 feet long and weigh more than 3,000 pounds with males growing larger than the females.

Three belugas bob at water's surface of Shedd Aquarium's Abbott Oceanarium, the middle beluga has mouth open.

Care and Wellbeing

The health and wellbeing of the diverse aquatic animals in Shedd’s care, including the beluga whales, is our top priority. The belugas’ 3-million-gallon home in the Abbott Oceanarium was specifically designed with their needs in mind, recreating a cold, saltwater environment of the Pacific Northwest coast. The pod at Shedd moves between several habitat spaces throughout the day, socializing all together or in groupings that can fluctuate throughout the year, encouraging connections and interactions between different individuals as part of their holistic care.

Daily water quality tests ensure that parameters like temperature, pH, salinity and more are within healthy levels, fostering an environment that helps the animals thrive. The water sometimes appears cloudy because it’s rich in nutrients essential for the wellbeing of the beluga whales.

A robust animal enrichment program provides novel things for the belugas to explore – challenging their minds, encouraging play and showcasing their unique behaviors. You can often see the beluga whales exploring and playing with more than 100 different items, engaging with caretakers during training sessions or eating a variety of restaurant-quality, nutritious and sustainably sourced seafood like herring, sardines, capelin and squid, which is all part of enrichment.

Additionally, trusting relationships between caretakers and the belugas allow for each animal to participate in their own healthcare. With mobile animal health equipment readily available, we can swiftly address any healthcare needs within the habitat, ranging from preventative care like physical exams to urgent or emergent care requirements.

Annik Beluga

Advancements in Care

Shedd is one of only six accredited organizations in the United States that cares for belugas. Partnership between these facilities allows us to make greater contributions to the collective understanding of the species and the challenges facing their wild counterparts. The beluga whales at Shedd have helped us to dive deeper into learning about the species’ immune function, migration patterns and habits, predict the effects that climate change or industrial activities could have on wild whales and much more.

Our round-the-clock care for and observation of expectant beluga mothers and newborn calves gives us a window into how belugas come into the world, develop and grow, something that is incredibly difficult – if not impossible – to study in the wild.

We continue to contribute to first-of-its-kind welfare research like the Cetacean Welfare Study and proactively seek out third-party evaluations, like the Cetacean Welfare Assessment, to continually evaluate and advance the aquarium’s already high standards of care. These practices reflect a broad commitment to animal wellbeing

Beluga whale Mauyak peeps above the surface, stirring the water with her fins.

Investments in Research

Beyond the aquarium, Shedd has made significant investments and contributions to research focused on endangered and critically endangered subpopulations of belugas in Alaska and Canada. This can look like everything from funding studies on noise pollution, contributing biological samples and data to partners’ studies, or providing photos and measurements in a photogrammetry project with our partners at GREMM.

It is the combination of access to the healthy, multigenerational population of whales in our care, our scientific rigor, our network of partners and our large public platform that makes Shedd such a unique and valuable contributor to beluga whale research.

Two belugas swim away from the photographer, pushing their tail flukes powerfully through the water.

Conservation and Advocacy

Beluga whales are federally protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Worldwide, the species numbers in the thousands, but subpopulations like in Alaska’s Cook Inlet and Canada’s St. Lawrence Estuary are listed as endangered or critically endangered. Shedd has for several years participated in and shared our expertise through an event called Belugas Count, a day of public support and education that also serves to conduct a census of the Cook Inlet population, which is currently estimated at fewer than 300 whales.

Beluga whales are vulnerable to many stressors, including habitat degradation, pollution, noise levels, warming oceans and more. Shedd is constantly advocating for legislation and policy enhancements, informed by science, that help to combat the growing list of threats that challenge aquatic life, including belugas.

Shedd experts, as part of the Animal Response Team, are also ready to travel across the globe to help rescue and rehabilitate animals in need. In 2017, Shedd's Animal Response Team join a lifesaving rescue for an infant beluga stranded in Canada, teaming with partners and contributing our extensive knowledge and skills to transport the whale to a safe home. Thanks to round-the-clock care, the calf became the first rescued newborn beluga to be successfully rehabilitated and he continues to thrive in an accredited aquarium.

Meet the Belugas

There are eight beluga whales at Shedd — Annik, Atlas, Aurek, Beethoven, Bella, Kayavak, Kimalu and Naya. They are all ambassadors for their species, helping millions of guests every year form a deeper connection to the aquatic world. Get to know them better before your next visit and learn more about the qualities that make each beluga unique. 

Beluga Who's Who