Side view of a Beluga in Saguenay St.Lawrence Marine Park
Beluga in Saguenay St. Lawrence Marine Park.

The beluga, also called the “white whale,” “white porpoise” and “sea canary,” has always been fascinating. With its white skin and prominent forehead, it is easily recognizable among the other sea mammals. The St. Lawrence beluga spends the year in the St. Lawrence estuary and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and frequents the Saguenay River Fjord during the summer. This curious, chatty and outgoing mammal has been threatened with extinction for some decades. The main reason for this species’ decline is whaling, which took place until the 20th century. Pollution has been and still is a significant cause of the St. Lawrence beluga’s uncertain situation. To maintain a viable population of this mammal in the St. Lawrence, a recovery plan has been put in place. A true environmental symbol in Quebec, the beluga can even be found at the very origin of the founding of the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park!

What is the St. Lawrence Beluga?

Close-up of the head of a beluga
With its white skin and prominent forehead, it is easily recognizable among the other sea mammals.

The beluga is a mammal in the cetacean family. It is distinguished by its thick, white skin, its prominent, rounded forehead and the absence of a dorsal fin. It is assumed that these characteristics resulted from adaptation to the icy waters of the Arctic. The beluga is a toothed whale. Its size generally ranges from 3 to 4 metres. Calves are an average of 1.5 metres long at birth. When they are born, their skin is brown or slate grey. As they age their colour pales, becoming white when they are adults. One of the unique aspects of the beluga is that it has a very wide range of sounds that include barks, cackles, clicks, grunts and many others. That is where it got the nickname “sea canary”.

Belugas, in addition to their impressive vocal repertoire, can also emit ultrasonic sounds! The echo that comes back allows them to find prey, holes in the ice and even obstacles.

Where is the St. Lawrence Beluga found?

Belugas are generally found in the parts of the Arctic and sub-arctic seas that are only covered in ice during certain seasons. The St. Lawrence population is the farthest south on Earth. During the summer, the St. Lawrence beluga mainly stays in the St. Lawrence Estuary and the Saguenay River Fjord, where it can find plenty of food. During the winter, it stays more in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

What is the status of the St. Lawrence Beluga?

Group of belugas
Belugas live in groups. Some research has enabled us to observe their social habits, so we know that the females stay with the young, while the males eat, rest and play among themselves.

Since May 2004, the beluga population of the St. Lawrence estuary has been considered threatened by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). That means that its situation is considered uncertain and steps must be taken to ensure its survival. The St. Lawrence beluga is protected under the Government of Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA). There are other populations of belugas elsewhere in Canada; some of those are also endangered.

Why is the St. Lawrence Beluga in danger?

For a long time, the St. Lawrence beluga was one of the favourite targets of European and North American hunters. Whaling, particularly intense between 1880 and 1950, is the main cause of the decline of the St. Lawrence population. Despite the fact that whaling stopped in 1979, several factors are still contributing to the decrease in this population and are limiting its recovery. Pollution related to the industrialization and urbanization of the St. Lawrence and Saguenay rivers and their tributaries is intricately linked to the health of this species. The beluga’s habitat still contains high concentrations of contaminants that accumulate in the fat of these animals, which the mothers then pass to their young. The small size of the population also makes it more vulnerable to genetic disorders, cancers and other diseases. Today, in addition to these problems, other factors slow the recovery of the St. Lawrence beluga. They are mostly related to the disturbance caused by shipping traffic and marine observation activities, collisions with ships and climate change.

Why protect the St .Lawrence Beluga?

Belugas of the Saguenay St. Lawrence estuary population
Belugas are easily recognizable by their white skin.

Of all the populations of this species, the St. Lawrence beluga lives the farthest south on the planet. Its presence contributes in a strong way to the ecological diversity of the estuary. Also, since the arrival of the first explorers, the beluga has been intimately associated with this section of the river, where explorers came, among other things, to hunt them. Since the 1980s, the belugas have not been hunted, but their presence, as well as that of some other species of sea mammals, has contributed to the attraction of the region as a tourist destination of choice.

In the past, the St. Lawrence beluga’s situation has raised passions and inspired numerous acts of conservation. It has become a symbol of the fragility of nature and the importance of acting to protect the environment. Let’s continue to act to offer the St. Lawrence beluga a future worthy of what it represents.

What is Parks Canada doing to protect the St. Lawrence Beluga?

Recovery actions

At the beginning of the 1990s, several stakeholders met to create a recovery plan for the St. Lawrence beluga. Since the publication of this plan in 1995, several actions have been taken to aid the beluga population. The single most important was the creation of the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park. This Park, jointly managed by Parks Canada and Parcs Québec, enables us to protect a part of the ecosystem in which the St. Lawrence beluga spends its whole life.

The creation of the Marine observation activities regulations is also one of the most important measures in place to encourage the recovery of the St. Lawrence beluga population. These regulations, written in collaboration with the people who conduct activities in the waters of the Marine Park, provide guidelines about observing marine mammals. The main goal of such regulations is to reduce the intrusion caused by human activities. Since the implementation of these regulations in 2002, it has been prohibited to get closer than 400 metres to a beluga or blue whale, no matter what type of boat or the nautical activity being practiced.

Research and observation

Several research and follow-up projects have been done in the past and are being done today. Parks Canada is participating in these projects, in collaboration with other departments and non-governmental organizations involved in the Marine Park area. Most research projects on the belugas focus on watching the development of the size of the population, its composition, the use of the habitat and the effects of human activities.

Raising public awareness

In the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park, there are several opportunities for visitors who would like to learn more about St. Lawrence belugas. Parks Canada and its partners offer visitors interpretation centres, panels installed on the piers and river trails, personalized interpretation and theatrical presentations. Three sites for observing marine mammals from the shore are also accessible. At the sites, in addition to being able to observe the natural habits of these animals, visitors can also benefit from naturalists who can answer all their questions.

Collaborating with partners

For the purposes of research, species recovery and interpretation, the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marin Park works in collaboration with various government and non-governmental partners. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Environment Canada, Parcs Québec, the Maurice Lamontagne Institute, the group for research and education on marine mammals (GREMM), Explos-Nature, ZIP committees (ZIP is short for “zone d'intervention prioritaire,” or area of prime concern), and several others are among those involved in research about and interpretation of this subject at the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park.

How can I help?

Belugas, in addition to their impressive vocal repertoire, can also emit ultrasonic sounds! The echo that comes back allows them to find prey, holes in the ice and even obstacles.

Close-up of a beluga.
The beluga does not have a dorsal fin, but rather a hump on its back, called a crest. It serves to break the ice that covers the water when it needs to breathe.
  • Behave respectfully toward belugas when you observe them, whether at the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park or elsewhere on the St. Lawrence. Watch them from land so that you do not disturb them. If you prefer to participate in a whale-watching trip on the water, choose a cruise company that respects the regulations on observing marine mammals.
  • Be curious. Learn more about the beluga and share your knowledge about this species with your group. Visit the exhibit on the beluga at the Sainte-Marguerite Bay Pavilion in the Saguenay park. Meet with interpreter-guides from the Pointe-Noire Interpretation and Observation Centre.
  • Always, and particularly at the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park, dispose of your garbage appropriately. When picnicking, use reusable containers and utensils. Too often, plastic bags and wraps, juice containers and other garbage fly away and end up in the water where they can pollute the environment for decades, or even centuries.
  • Adopt daily habits that respect the environment. Your use of water has an impact on the health of the river: save it and use ecologically friendly cleaning products!
  • Does your municipality have a sewer system that effectively treats wastewater before dumping it in the rivers? If not, share your concerns about this issue with elected municipal and/or regional officials.