Arctic trip – beluga whales

I’d seen a beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) only once before, and that was in the Atlanta aquarium in the United States. In the wild it’s a more holistic experience, although it’s impossible to see the whole of the animals unless they’re beached – you’re getting a sense of how they live and behave in the environment they are adapted to.

The whole group went on a zodiac cruise to see what was out there, and we were fortunate to come across four or five belugas in a pod.

The younger ones are grey, whitening with age to very white at adulthood (7-9 years old). They are not that big – like a large dolphin. The white colouration camouflages them against orcas, polar bears and people, which are the three main predators.

They are toothed whales and dive to about 20 m, although have been recorded much deeper, looking for fish, shrimp, squid, octopus, crabs, clams and suchlike.

Beluga whales, Svalbard; photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

There is no dorsal fin. (Having one would be awkward when they bump up against the underside of ice.) The ‘melon’ (of fatty tissue) on the head helps with echolocation and communication, and is unusual in that it changes shape while the animal makes sounds.

Beluga whale at the Atlanta aquarium. Photo by Greg Hume, Wikimedia Commons

They shed their skin every year, in spring, rubbing themselves against gravel on the shallow bottoms of estuaries to help remove it.

I was keen to see a unicorn (yes, they do exist), but apparently narwhals are very shy of ships, so unusual to see.

Narwhal pod (Monodon monoceros); photo by Dr Kristin Laidre, Polar Science Center, UW NOAA/OAR/OER_NOAA, Wikimedia Commons

It’s common for narwhals and belugas to hang out together, and hybrids have been seen, called, ugh, ‘narlugas’. Is ‘bewhals’ better? You be the judge.

Arctic trip – a blue whale

It all started in the wee small hours – I won’t say ‘sunrise’ as there hadn’t been one for weeks – but Janet (my room-mate) was having a shower and I was snoozing in the bottom bunk, contemplating getting up.

A hushed whisper came over the tannoy – Dick, one of the naturalists, apologising for waking us but, if anyone was interested, THERE WAS A BLUE WHALE ON THE STARBOARD BOW! He had maintained the whisper, but my brain turned it into a shout – I leapt up, got dressed for zero degrees in record time and dashed to top deck (thus assuring my cardio exercise for the year).

One of our Gardening Australia group, Anne, had spotted it, and it was thrilling to see – the largest animal known to have lived, the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus). It quietly meandered near the boat for quite a while, and Bruce again took much better shots that I did.

I’m used to seeing lots of humpies (Megaptera novaeangliae) along the east coast of Australia, and they often breach. Blue whales also do, but this one was not so energetic.

Blue whale off Spitsbergen; photo by Bruce Moore

The blue whale is a baleen whale, sieving up to 6 tonnes of krill and copepods a day from the summer waters, and summer in the Arctic provides lots of prey through upwelling of currents.

Blue whale_2_Bruce

Photo by Bruce Moore

Blue whale_3_Bruce

Photo by Bruce Moore

Like other whales, blues were heavily hunted, almost to extinction, and the numbers haven’t increased much since then. They are estimated to live to 80-90 years of age. Females don’t start reproducing until 10-15 years old and give birth to a single calf every two or three years, so the rate of increase is slow. They are protected from hunting these days (world population estimate is 10,000), but orcas occasionally kill them and the most disturbing death rates (for all whales) are those from ship strike and plastic ingestion.

Blue whale_4_Bruce.jpg

Photo by Bruce Moore

Blue whale_5_Bruce.jpg

Photo by Bruce Moore

Here’s a handy guide for identifying levitating whales:

Whale poster.JPGBut you are more likely to see this in the distance, if the whale is even on the surface:Blue whale_6_Bruce.jpg

On one of our land excursions, we came across two vertebrae of (probably) an old kill by humans. Things take ages to break down in the Arctic due to the extreme cold and fewer breakdown bacteria.

Whale vertebrae.JPGIt was another of those ‘gosh, wow’ days in Svalbard.