Doomed: the songstress of the deep

The numbers of beluga, the white whales of Alaska, have halved in 13 years


The waters off the Alaskan coastline are now becoming a graveyard for the beluga, the mystical rare white whale, whose repertoire of high-pitched squeaks, squeals and whistles have led to it being dubbed the songstress of the deep.

A new report by the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, to be published later this year, will reveal that the number of beluga whales in Cook Inlet has declined dramatically in the past decade and now stands at just 302. This is less than half the number recorded in 1994, according to Brad Smith, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"There is a one-in-four chance that this population is going to become extinct in 100 years," he said. "This is the only population of belugas found in the Gulf of Alaska. If we lose these whales they will not be replaced. These whales are genetically and physically isolated from other populations."

Belugas have become a symbol of man's effect on the environment due to their capacity to absorb large amounts of pollution. Those in the Gulf of St Lawrence in Canada have such high concentrations of chemical pollutants in their bodies that their carcasses are treated as toxic waste. But now the distinctive white whales, an inspiration for Moby-Dick, are showing signs of their own demise.

Decades of whaling have placed belugas in a vulnerable position, accor-ding to campaigners who are now warning that a deadly combination of increasing boat traffic, oil and gas exploration and pollution are all adding to the pressure on the species. The whales are also subject to attacks from polar bears and killer whales, and global warming is changing the movements of the pack ice that dictates their range.

Government scientists are now developing a plan to protect the remaining belugas, which will include recommendations to create areas of "critical habitat" where human activity would be subject to greater regulation.

Sue Fisher, of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, said: "The species is threatened across its Arctic range by oil and gas development, over-fishing, vessel traffic, industrial development and pollution, not to mention climate change. Over-hunting also remains a serious threat."

There are thought to be five main populations of beluga, varying in numbers from 300 to 30,000. Their only hope of long-term survival may rest on whether they can keep their distance from humans.

The facts

* 1,000m is the depth to which belugas are capable of diving, though they spend the summer in shallow bays and estuaries and the winter under pack ice

* Beluga whales live for around 30 years in the wild

* There are five main populations: the Bering, Chukchi and Okhotsk Seas; high Arctic Canada and west Greenland; Hudson Bay and James Bay; the Svalbard area; and the Gulf of St Lawrence

* Belugas are the only whales that can bend their necks

* Instead of a dorsal fin, they have a narrow ridge along their back that allows them to swim freely under floating ice

* 3,000lb is the maximum weight of the beluga (Delphinapterus leucas), which grows to an average length of 15 feet

* They use echo sound from their clicks, chirps and whistles to locate prey, communicate, and navigate

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