A singing, sociable white whale

Updated: 2011-03-16 07:17

(HK Edition)

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 A singing, sociable white whale

Children in an education class inside Aqua City, Ocean Park. Red Door News, Hong Kong / for China Daily

Renowned for their intelligence, friendlinessand unusually expressive faces, beluga whales have been put on show in aquariums since the mid-19th century and are among the first whale species to be kept in captivity.

Stories abound of how beluga whales have formed close bonds with humans. In one case, a captive beluga is said to have saved the life of a female diver paralyzed by cramp and stuck at the bottom of a pool by holding her foot in its mouth and swimming her to the surface.

White in color - their names comes from the Russian word for white - beluga whales live mainly in the Arctic. They grow up to around 5 meters in length, weigh up to 3,000 pounds and usually live for 25 to 30 years. Their diet in the wild comprises squid, crabs, clams, shrimp and other fish.

Beluga whales produce a wide range of sounds that can be heard clearly from the surface of the water - squeaks, chirps whistles and clicks - and seafarers have for hundreds of years called the whale the "sea canary".Their natural predators are killer whales and in some areas, polar bears.

Social and friendly by nature, beluga whales congregate in groups of two to 25 and can form pods - or groups - ranging in size from hundreds toup to 10,000. When feeding they can dive for almost 15 minutes and swim to a depth of around 20 metres.

There are around 200,000 beluga whales worldwide according to the American Cetacean society. The "near threatened" status of the beluga whale is largely as a result of a lack of clarity over population numbers especially in the Russian Arctic where Ocean Park is considering sourcing wild beluga.

In other places such as the Cook Inlet in Alaska, the beluga is already listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Simon Parry

(HK Edition 03/16/2011 page4)