Other visitors include: Rorqual, Finback, Sperm, and Blue Whales
The white whales of the Arctic: belugas. The iconic white color even gave the whales their name, as “beluga” means “white one” in Russian. If the white body wasn’t enough to tip you off when seeing a beluga, the lack of dorsal fin is another particular trait. This particular lack of fin allows the beluga to easily skim the water under the floating ice sheets. They can also turn their necks in all directions—a unique trait amongst whales—as another handy adaptation for surviving the Arctic waters and the polar bears and orcas that hunt them.
Belugas are also known as Sea Canaries, a monicker they picked up for the high pitched squeals, whistles and clicks they make when communicating.
FUN FACT: While belugas are armed with a mouth full of teeth, they only use their teeth to snap up their prey and hold on rather than chew. Belugas prefer to swallow their prey whole.
Narwhals, the veritable unicorn of the sea, may appear mythical with the tusk protruding from their head, but these pale porpoises can be found in the chilly Arctic coastal waters and rivers. They are best known for their tusk, which is truly a large tooth with sensory capabilities that can grow as long as 10 feet. Some narwhals can grow up to two of these spiraling horns, yet some grow none. Despite tusks being a narwhal’s most prominent feature, scientists are actually uncertain as to its purpose.
Narwhals, related to belugas, bottlenose dolphins, orcas and harbor porpoises, often travel in large groups of 15-20, though sightings of groups as large as several hundred or several thousand have been reported. Many narwhals are known to winter for up to five months in the Baffin Bay and Davis Strait region.
FUN FACT: Unlike the horn of their fantastical unicorn counterpart, a narwhal’s spiraled tusk doesn’t grow out of its forehead. Rather, this tusk actually serves as a tooth which grows straight through the narwhal’s upper lip.
Unlike Arctic whales, orcas—migrant visitors—are not well-adapted to the unique and harsh environment. The biggest impediment is their big dorsal fin. Unlike the beluga, whose lack dorsal fins allow them to easily navigate the waters underneath the ice sheets, orcas have that dorsal protrusion keeping them from skimming close underneath the sea ice. To avoid heavier ice formation during the winter months, orcas in the Canadian Arctic migrate further south.
FUN FACT: As Arctic ice moves out, orcas are moving in. The melting, receding Arctic ice creates an ecosystem more fit for orcas, so the whales are enjoying wider, longer access to the Arctic. Of course, this means they’re competing with the polar bear as the Arctic’s top predator.
Bowhead whales, second in size only to the massive blue whale, are a predominately Arctic species. To survive the Arctic’s cold waters, the bowhead requires excellent insulation, and it is so equipped with the thickest blubber found on any animal: half a meter. The bowhead whale also has a suitably enormous bow-shaped mouth filled with 3-meter tall baleen plates, making it the largest mouth of any animal in the world. Despite their massive size, bowheads can leap entirely out of the water. Their thick skulls and powerful physique also help the bowheads break through thick Arctic ice, though shifting ice flows still play a significant role in the whale pods’ movement patterns.
Female bowheads are quite the coquette, and are maybe the most flirtatious of the ocean mammals. They frequently tease the male bowheads into quite a fit of excitement.
FUN FACT: Discoveries suggest that bowheads may be the longest living animals on earth, with lifespans extending over 100 years—possibly reaching 200 years.