Beluga whales dive deep under water in order to maximize the amount of food available to them during hunts. A new study reveals previously-unknown hunting patterns of the marine mammals.
During winter months, two populations of the marine mammals live in the Bering Sea. As weather warms, and ice begins to break, the animals move north into the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. These migrations can cover thousands of miles from start to finish. When the marine mammals arrive in their summer habitat, they dive as far as half a mile under water in search of their staple foods. However, during most dives, the distinctive whales cruise to just one-third of that distance. The animals searched for food both deep along the seafloor, and along sloping grounds, investigators found.
Cetacean biologists know relatively little about the species of animal, which lives in some of the most remote, frigid waters in the world.
Beluga whales often travel close to shore, making it easy to tag the creatures, allowing themselves to be tracked by satellite. These devices collect data while the whales are underwater, and data is transmitted to researchers when the creature surfaces.
"It's a really fantastic system for getting relatively high-resolution information for these animals that spend most of their time underwater and offshore. In addition to their inaccessibility, these populations use remote areas of the Arctic, so they are generally hard animals to research," Donna Hauser from the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington, said.
In all, biologists examined the diving patterns of 30 whales over the course of 15 years to arrive at their conclusions. Future research will examine how beluga whales may be affected by environmental changes in the Arctic. The creatures are also a source of sustenance for some of the human populations in the region, so this study will directly impact the lives of people there.
Beluga whales caught the attention of the general public after the release of the children's song "Baby Beluga" by singer-songwriter Raffi.
Study of the foraging patterns of Beluga whales in the region was profiled in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series.