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On behalf of animals everywhere, Georgia Aquarium has taken a leadership role in the zoological community. Together with other members of this community, our team works hands-on to research beluga whales both in our care and in their natural environment. With your support, in order to understand beluga whales, numerous research initiatives have been supported or undertaken by Georgia Aquarium. Learn more about how Georgia Aquarium is making a difference around the world.
Beluga Whales at Georgia Aquarium
Georgia Aquarium’s Georgia-Pacific Cold Water Quest gallery has been home to beluga whales since the Aquarium opened its doors in 2005. Millions upon millions of people have visited Georgia Aquarium and have been introduced to these magnificent and graceful belugas. These incredible whales quickly became some of the most popular animals in the Aquarium, and are favorites of our guests. For this reason, the belugas at Georgia Aquarium have become ambassadors for all marine mammals; increasing scientific knowledge and helping Aquarium staffers promote education and conservation messages on behalf of the species, while creating an important link between people and nature.
There are four belugas currently under expert human care at Georgia Aquarium- Beethoven, Maris, Grayson and Qinu. In total, there are more than 30 beluga whales in facilities accredited by AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) and AMMPA (Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquarium) throughout North America, with just a little more than 200 in human care worldwide.
• Born: July 28, 1994
• Gender: Female
• Born: August 8, 1992
• Gender: Male
• Born: July 31, 2008
• Gender: Female
• Born: June 26, 2007
• Gender: Male
Beluga Whale Facts
Types of Cetaceans
Toothed Whales (Odontocetes)
Research & Conservation
Georgia Aquarium has taken a leadership role in the zoological community. In support of conservation of the species, our staff members work hands-on to research beluga whales both in our care and in their natural environment. In order to understand beluga whales, numerous research initiatives have been supported or undertaken by Georgia Aquarium. These projects allow us to take measures towards conservation and protection of the species. Georgia Aquarium remains committed to educating the public and inspiring them to help these threatened animals. Here are just a few examples of how Georgia Aquarium is making a difference around the world.
I. Population Study
Until 1960, no research had been performed on the population of beluga whales in the Sea of Okhotsk in Russia. Before commercial fishing stopped in 1963, practices in use at the time caused a severe decline in the beluga population. Starting in the 1990’s, it became a common, regulated practice in this region to collect belugas from their natural habitats for zoos and aquariums, most located in Europe and Asia. This occurred despite a lack of knowledge of the population’s range and extent in the Sea of Okhotsk.
In 2007, Georgia Aquarium and other partners entered into a joint venture to conduct field studies of beluga whales in the Sea of Okhotsk over the course of five years. Data was collected via satellite tagging, genetic sampling and aerial surveys to determine range and population size. Analysis of the data revealed that the lowest estimated population in the area was 3,961 belugas, with growth occurring each year. The study showed that the annual removal of a certain number of beluga whales from this population has no adverse affect on the population or its continued growth. Georgia Aquarium is dedicated to continuing surveys of this area to further delineate the population and ensure it remains robust.
II. Health Assessments
Ongoing studies at Georgia Aquarium regarding beluga whales’ biology, physiology and diseases ultimately benefit the species in its natural environment. Using safe handling techniques developed during health assessments in an aquarium setting, researchers are now better equipped to assess the health of belugas in their natural habitats. Georgia Aquarium is an active participant in beluga whale health assessments in Alaska. In 2008 and 2011, Work in Alaska was focused on understanding nutrition of belugas in Bristol Bay relative to the population in Cook Inlet, which was recently listed as endangered. Research staffed and sponsored by Georgia Aquarium focused on what belugas eat based on blood samples, in addition testing for exposure to pollutants which could have long term effects on the beluga population.
III. Observation Studies
Georgia Aquarium has created a beluga observation study for animals in human care. Animal care specialists collect data by observing the beluga whales day and night. Based on these casual observations, trainers and zoological operations staff have been able to create a baseline of behaviors. These studies will allow us to better care for our animals as we learn to quickly distinguish baseline behaviors from subtle atypical behaviors.
Additional Research Conducted by Other Accredited Aquariums and Zoological Parks
I. Bottlenose Dolphin and Beluga Whale Reproductive Biology
II. Monitoring Beluga Whale Health and Body Condition on Different Percentage of Mazuri Artificial Fish Diet
III. Beluga Whale Echolocation Signals in Two Different Ambient Noise Environments.
IV. Nocturnal Behavior of Small Cetaceans under Human Care
V. Echolocation of the Beluga Whale: A Review and Comparison with the Bottlenose Dolphin
VI. Measurement of reproductive status via non‐invasive sampling of fecal steroid metabolites within beluga whales
VII. Bottlenose Dolphin and Beluga Whale Reproductive Biology
VIII. Monitoring Beluga Whale Health & Body Condition on Different Percentages of Mazuri Artificial Fish Diet
IX. Sonar Target Detection and Recognition by Odontocetes
X. Demonstration of Adaptation in Beluga Whale Echolocation Signals
XI. Beluga Whale Echolocation Signals in Two Different Ambient Noise Environments
XII. Modulation Rate Transfer Functions to Low Frequency Carriers by Three Species of Cetaceans
XIII. Auditory and Behavioral Responses of Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and a Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas) to Impulsive Sounds Resembling Distant Signatures of Underwater Explosions
XIV. Nocturnal Behavior of Captive Small Cetaceans
XV. Hearing Thresholds for Periodic 60-Hz Tone Pulses in the Beluga Whale
XVI. Masked Tonal Hearing Thresholds in the Beluga Whale
XVII. Neural-Immune Interactions in the Beluga Whale
XVIII. The Demonstration of a Possible Link for Neural-Immune System Interactions in the Beluga Whale
XIX. Thyroid Hormone Metabolism in Small Odontocetes
XX. Conditioning Two Beluga Whales for Open Ocean Hearing Studies at Various Depths
XXI. Echolocation abilities of the Beluga Whale: A Review and Comparison with the Bottlenose Dolphin
XXII. Target Detection: Beluga Whale and Bottlenose Dolphin Echolocation Abilities Compared
For more information on valuable beluga whale and other marine mammal research conducted by accredited aquariums and zoological parks, please visit www.ammpa.org or www.nmmpfoundation.org/alliance.
Beluga Whale Conservation Project - Acquisition
In many areas of the world, beluga whales are under enormous pressures due to environmental changes, water quality issues and exploration for natural resources. The beluga whale is listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as “Near Threatened” globally and is critically endangered in certain part of the world (Anchorage, Alaska, and two areas of Canada). IUCN is the world’s oldest and largest global environment organization and is a leading authority on the environment and sustainability. Because of this situation, it is important that conservation initiatives be undertaken to ensure the survival of the species. Georgia Aquarium is deeply committed to the conservation of belugas; unfortunately, the scientific community doesn’t yet know as much about belugas as we need to in order to make a difference.
A better understanding of belugas is critical to conserve and protect the species. When we can study and observe belugas in human care, we continue to gain a better understanding of their biology, physiology and diseases that affect them, all with the goal of learning what we need to learn to help those populations in their natural habitats. Much of this research and observation would be impossible to conduct in the wild due to the remote locations and extreme climates the animals inhabit.
Belugas at accredited aquariums and zoos are important ambassadors to their species. They bring marine mammal education to life and inspire millions of people to become involved in conserving and protecting the species. Many of these people would not even know that belugas exist were it not for educational programs at our facilities. Georgia Aquarium embraces the importance of our obligation to educate the public on these majestic animals. We are one of only seven accredited North American aquariums and zoos committed to public display and breeding of beluga whales.
Clearly, maintaining a sustainable population of belugas in human care is essential to the survival of belugas everywhere. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, the zoological community is at a crossroads. With just 34 beluga whales in human care in accredited North American facilities, and relatively poor genetic diversity among those animals, our community is facing certain extinction of our beluga whale population in human care.
The implications of this will be devastating. Once the population of beluga whales in human care is gone, it’s gone. Many of our opportunities for loving, understanding and learning about these majestic animals will disappear too. Because of this, Georgia Aquarium is proud to take a bold step to help ensure this doesn’t happen.
In order to continue our ongoing programs to conserve and protect belugas, and to help bolster and sustain our population of animals in human care, Georgia Aquarium is in the process of acquiring and importing 18 beluga whales which originate from northern Russia. These whales will make their homes at Georgia Aquarium and other leading accredited aquariums and zoological parks in the United States which already care for beluga whales.
Over a period of five years, Georgia Aquarium supported an important research project to learn more about the population of animals from which the whales originated in the Sea of Okhotsk. This extensive body of research has been reviewed by our peers and validated by the highly-respected IUCN. The findings tell us that the acquisition and import of these animals has absolutely zero negative impact on this very robust native population in the Sea of Okhotsk. It’s important to note that we’re conducting this project in full accordance with the Animal Welfare Act, U.S. and international law, and the bylaws of the zoological associations to which Georgia Aquarium belongs. We are looking forward to welcoming these animals with all the love and care we give to all of our animals.
The whales will make their homes at Georgia Aquarium and other leading accredited aquariums and zoological parks in North America. This will help create ideal social settings for the animals and will enhance the opportunities for breeding. By managing the population as a whole, our chances of successful breeding are much greater – which will ultimately help us to build a sustainable population.
Georgia Aquarium’s beluga caretakers are experts in veterinary care and husbandry, with over 100 years of combined experience caring for belugas. We love all of our animals – and demonstrate this every day by giving the highest quality care reflecting all we’ve learned about animal nutrition, veterinary methods, enrichment, training and research.
Like all of our groundbreaking work, we at Georgia Aquarium are extremely excited and proud of this project and what it means for the scientific and zoological communities. We are taking this bold step in support of animals. By doing so, we believe the next generation of your family, and the next and the next, will be able to care and learn about beluga whales at Georgia Aquarium for decades to come.
Animal Care & Transport
The beluga whales are currently being cared for in Russia at a facility affiliated with the Russian Academy of Sciences. There are in the excellent care of a group of scientists who have for years studied this healthy population of belugas.
Export permits to import the animals have been approved in Russia. Once the Aquarium has been granted the permit to import these belugas, the animals will be transported and welcomed to the United States. Every animal transport is planned in great detail, and extraordinary care is taken to ensure that the animals remain comfortable throughout the transport. Each animal move includes the investment of a significant amount of time with the animal at the partnering facility prior to transport, veterinary approval for travel, expert staff who remain with the animal at all times, post-transport observations and acclimation of the animal by the team upon arrival.
The belugas will reside in only accredited aquariums and zoological parks across the U.S., which helps assure consistency and quality of care, creates an ideal social setting for the animals, and enhances opportunities for cooperative breeding. The addition of these animals into a cooperative breeding program known as a Species Survival Plan will help to ensure a long-term sustainable population of belugas in human care in North America, thus furthering the all-important opportunities for learning about, loving and conserving these beautiful creatures.
Conservation/Acquisition Project Q&A
Why are you importing beluga whales?
As important ambassadors to their species, beluga whales bring marine mammal education to life and inspire millions of people to become involved in their conservation and protection. Unfortunately, with just 34 beluga whales in human care in North America, and relatively poor genetic diversity, our community is facing certain extinction of our beluga population. Maintaining a sustainable population of belugas in human care is essential to the survival of belugas everywhere. When we can study and observe belugas in human care, we continue to gain a better understanding of their biology, physiology and diseases that affect them, all with the goal of learning what we need to learn to help those populations in their natural habitats. Much of this research and observation would be impossible to conduct in the wild due to their remote locations and extreme climates.
How many beluga whales will you be importing? Will they all come to Georgia Aquarium?
We will be acquiring 18 beluga whales (10 females, 8 males). All of the whales will not come to the Aquarium; instead, the whales will reside at six different accredited institutions in the United States (including Georgia Aquarium) which already care for belugas.
I heard some U.S. populations of belugas are endangered. Is the Russia population related to them? Aren’t all belugas endangered?
Because there is substantial uncertainty about numbers and trends for large parts of their range globally, the beluga whale is unquestionably a conservation-dependent species and has been listed as “Near Threatened” by the highly-respected IUCN (the International Union for the Conservation of Nature). There are estimated to be more than 150,000 beluga whales throughout their range in the Arctic Seas. However, there are three populations of beluga whales that are considered critically endangered: The Cook Inlet population off of Anchorage, Alaska USA; and two of the seven Canadian populations. The population in the Sea of Okhotsk in northern Russia, from which the 18 whales being imported originate, is not connected to these endangered populations.
Why are you acquiring animals from Russia?
Maintaining a sustainable population of belugas in human care is essential to the survival of belugas everywhere. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, the zoological community is at a crossroads. With just 34 beluga whales in human care in accredited North American facilities, and relatively poor genetic diversity among those animals, our community is facing certain extinction of our beluga whale population in human care. The implications of this will be devastating. Once the population of beluga whales in human care is gone, it’s gone – and many of our opportunities for loving, understanding and learning about these majestic animals will disappear too. Because of this, Georgia Aquarium began to search for answers to this dire situation, and realized that a humane collection of healthy animals from a robust native population was the responsible answer. The team sought out geographic areas that had a robust number of whales, were accessible from a climatology perspective and had historical successes by collectors. Using these parameters, the Aquarium worked with researchers to conduct a population abundance study in Russia, with results of the study confirming that a removal of a relatively small number of animals would have no detrimental impact to the native population.
Was this research peer-reviewed?
Five years of population abundance research was peer-reviewed and validated in 2011 by the highly respected, independent IUCN, under the leadership of the Chair of the IUCN Species Specialists Group for Cetaceans. The IUCN concluded that the acquisition of these belugas will have absolutely no detrimental impact on the beluga population in the Sea of Okhotsk.
How healthy is the beluga whale population in Russia?
Russia has more than one population of beluga whales residing in different bodies of water. The population from which Georgia Aquarium animals were selected was defined as robust by scientific review. The population will continue to grow, even with removal of this small number of animals.
Who collected the animals?
The Russian government issues a limited number of permits for the annual collections of beluga whales for research purposes and for placement in zoological facilities. Georgia Aquarium did not collect the animals; instead, they were acquired from a permitted research scientist.
Are belugas social animals? Do they live in groups? How will removal affect those groups?
Beluga whales are social animals and are often found in very small, dynamic maternal groups that change as additional calves are born. These small groups then come together and separate many times (known as fission/fusion societies) depending on migrations, feeding areas and/or reproductive times. Therefore, removal of select animals only minimally impacts any one group.
What do WAZA, AZA and AMMPA say about this program?
All 3 organizations are supportive of responsible animal collection and acquisition practices.
Are the sexes and ages of the animals known?
The animals are a mixture of different sexes, and it is estimated the age range is 4 to 10 years.
Where will the beluga whales stay until you bring them to the U.S.?
The beluga whales are currently being cared for in Russia at a facility affiliated with the Russian Academy of Sciences.
What kind of care have these animals been given while in Russia?
The care given to the whales while living at the holding facility has been, at a minimum, equal to that given in U.S. facilities governed by USDA standards. This care includes careful management of the animal diets and food handling processes.
How do you transport the animals to the U.S.?
All animal transports are planned in great detail, and extraordinary care is taken to ensure that animals remain comfortable throughout the transport. Each animal transport Georgia Aquarium conducts includes an investment of a significant amount of time with the animal at the partnering facility prior to transport, veterinary approval for travel, in-transit monitoring, post-transport observations and acclimation of the animals by Georgia Aquarium staff. Transport will be in individual transport boxes with salt water and a suspended stretcher, as per IATA regulated cetacean transport methods and is in strict compliance with the Animal Welfare Act.
When will the animals be moved to U.S.?
This will not be known until permits are issued by agencies of the U.S. government.
How do you get the new beluga whales acclimated to new homes in an aquarium or zoo?
The process of acclimation of the whales began when the collections first occurred. While in sea pens, the animals were conditioned to shift from having to hunt to find live food, to being given that very same food type as it is freshly collected. In this case, they were fed salmon and herring. Upon arrival to the holding facility, the animals were conditioned to recognize the value in human contact through the offering of food, and the attention given to individual animals by individual caregivers.
What are beluga population numbers in human care? Who has them?
There are just over 200 beluga whales currently living in Aquaria around the world. 34 beluga whales live in accredited AZA and AMMPA facilities in North America; 18 of those animals were born in human care.
Will you offer encounter programs with these beluga whales?
Georgia Aquarium firmly believes that connecting humans with animals is of the utmost importance. Through this contact, we can help bring our guests together with these extraordinary beluga whales to care for these animals and take decisive action to help conserve them. In addition to allowing our millions of guests the chance to see and learn about beluga whales in our exhibit, Georgia Aquarium currently offers the very popular Beluga & Friends Interactive Program, a 2.5 hour experience in which guests attend an education session all about beluga whales, and work alongside a trainer during an in-water encounter with a beluga. The program will continue after these whales arrive at the Aquarium; information about the Beluga & Friends Interactive Program can be found on the Georgia Aquarium website by clicking here.
Will you breed the animals? Will you exchange animals with other aquariums?
Yes, breeding is intended. To help facilitate successful breeding, exchanges with other facilities will occur, as is the practice even with the existing population of animals in human care. Collective management of the entire population of beluga whales in human care in North America is done through a program known as a Species Survival Plan, or SSP.
Are you doing this because of the recent death of your beluga whale calf?
While the death of Maris’ calf in May 2012 was tragic, unfortunately it was not unexpected, due to the low success rate of first-time beluga whale births both in the wild and in human care. This incident is unrelated to the importation of these beluga whales from Russia; this project has been in the works even prior to our becoming aware of Maris’ pregnancy. However, while unrelated, the loss of the calf absolutely does underscore the importance of this project to bolster and sustain the population of whales in human care in North America.
Don’t Aquariums have a bad track record in caring for beluga whales?
In decades past, beluga whale care standards were in their infancy. Since this time, through ongoing research and known best practices, aquariums and the animal care experts associated with them have demonstrated longevity in beluga whales, as well as successful reproduction. Much has been learned in the intervening decades by having these incredible animals in our care, and in recent years, the track record for belugas in the care of zoos and aquariums has been nothing less than exceptional.
It just doesn’t seem right to collect animals for display in an Aquarium. What do you say to this?
Maintaining the population of beluga whales in human care in accredited U.S. institutions is all-important, for the good of belugas everywhere. In fact, the 1972 U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act specifically encourages the practice of caring for these animals at aquariums and zoos in order to not only advance science, but to encourage conservation by U.S. citizens by raising awareness of these animals through exposure to the public. Having these animals in our care means we have the opportunity to learn all we need to know to better protect the species in its natural environment. Georgia Aquarium’s mission is to inspire stewardship in conservation of aquatic animals, and encourage our guests to support research programs that will allow mankind to better understand and thus help wild populations; we work every day to instill in our guests the appreciation for the aquatic world. Through our educational outreach programs or a visit, Georgia Aquarium has given millions of children and adults the opportunity to experience and learn about animals they may never have the chance to see in the ocean. This aquarium and other accredited institutions serve as a valuable resource for the conservation of the animals within the aquariums and as a representative to how we can make a change to better the environment. We believe this project is the right thing to do, at the right time, for the right reasons.
Belugas are one of your most popular animals. Are you just doing this for financial gain?
Absolutely not. Those who oppose any marine mammals in human care erroneously claim that these animals are on public display for economic gain. Georgia Aquarium is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, most of the revenue from our ticket sales goes into the care of the animals in our collection and towards research and conservation programs which benefit animals everywhere. In reality, animals such as those at Georgia Aquarium and other like-minded, accredited facilities are receiving the highest quality care from highly skilled veterinary and animal care experts, providing scientific insights to benefit conservation of belugas globally, and reaching millions of people -- who would not otherwise know about these animals -- with a strong conservation message. Effective conservation, research and education programs, both in the wild and in human care, are essential to the survival and sustainability of belugas everywhere.
Additional questions or comments can be directed to email@example.com.
AZA, Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Governing body of zoos and aquariums that awards accreditation based on excellence in animal welfare, veterinary care, conservation, research, education, staffing and safety.
AMMPA, Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums. The Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums is an international association representing marine life parks, aquariums, zoos, research facilities and professional organizations dedicated to the highest standards of care for marine mammals and to their conservation in the wild through public education, scientific study and wildlife presentations.
IUCN, International Union for the Conservation of Nature. A conservation organization that seeks to influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to conserve the integrity and diversity of nature and to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable.